' ' Cinema Romantico: Some Drivel On...Zombieland

Thursday, October 17, 2019

Some Drivel On...Zombieland

“Zombieland” begins by dropping us straight into its infested New America. We are not dropped into it, however, alongside an unknowing surrogate, a la “28 Days Later”, learning everything as he learns it. No, we are introduced to Zombieland by Columbus (Jesse Eisenberg), who has already been here a long time, evoked in elaborately staged shots of him wandering through post-apocalypse America’s wreckage on the interstate with his rolling suitcase in tow like all the world’s now a depressing airport concourse. He has survived, he explains in voiceover Eisenberg gives the ring of a man leaving behind auditory instruction manual, by adhering to a strict set of rules, which comically pop up on the screen as he demonstrates them, like shooting a zombie twice to ensure it is dead (Rule 2: Double Tap). In other words, “Zombieland” is both acknowledging and sending up the clichés typically inherent to such films, a deft balance director Ruben Fleischer strikes throughout.

A flashback to his Columbus’s pre-Zombieland life shows him as a gamer recluse, and when he lets in a panicked female only for her to be revealed as a zombie, the Meet Cute cum Self Defense set-up sort of suggests a burgeoning Men’s Rights Activist. That trap, glory hallelujah, is avoided, as it is elsewhere, like with Wichita, (Emma Stone), a con artist in cahoots with her sister Little Rock (Abigail Breslin), who fleece Columbus and his cohort Tallahassee (Woody Harrelson) not once but twice. Columbus, summarized in Eisenberg’s comically courtly air, still chooses to put his trust in her, and when they finally start to fall in love, the movie allows Wichita to be more of the romantic aggressor.

This relationship epitomizes the film’s overriding theme of togetherness which ingeniously does not impede the essential matter of killing zombies but becomes part and parcel to it in more interesting ways. Indeed, if the group is being chased by ravenous freaks, as Columbus puts it, Fleischer boldly diffuses the traditional tension this situation implies, coloring the action scenes more as the strengthening of bonds and, even better, stress relief, most notably in Tallahassee, whose relish for undead-slaying Harrelson plays with an amusing gleam in his eye matching the movie’s. If this is the new world order, he’s just rolling with it, which is sort of lyrical in its own violent way, and offsets the more extreme instances of blood and gore. (A scene where they smash up one of those interstate Indian trading outposts doesn’t feel insensitive but like the logical end point to Manifest Destiny.)

This not just the characters but the movie itself honoring Rule 11 – Enjoy the Little Things. That’s true of the movie’s celebrated cameo, Bill Murray, playing himself as a guy impersonating a zombie, spiritually tipping a cap to “Shaun of the Dead’s” best scene, explaining how this disguise allows him to “get out and do stuff”, and Enjoying the Little Things proves true of Wichita, too, whose foremost goal is taking her little sister to Pacific Playland on the faraway left coast for a playdate. That playdate culminates the film when Wichita pushes away from Columbus after getting too close, taking Little Rock with her and suddenly severing their proxy family ties.

If it’s merely a way to set herself up for a rescue from Columbus – and Tallahassee – which, sure enough, comes true, Stone alternating throughout the film between exuding smoky charisma, emotional brusqueness, and dry disdain here becomes almost quietly unhinged, which Breslin smartly plays off with an air of dubious Big Sister Knows Best, I Guess, deference. “Zombieland” never shies away from the knowing the ostensible zombie-less paradise of Pacific Playland is just a pipe dream and in these moments Stone leans hard into it, negating any deGrasse-ish Plot Holes Criticism of turning on amusement park lights at night which is sure to attract zombies.

The nigh maniacal look in Stone’s eyes is so convincing that despite having seen this movie several times before, I momentarily let myself think the movie might indulge in her expressive fatalism. That’s not what it does, of course, which isn’t bad, the happy ending here earned and emotionally true. But it’s not as if a night out at the amusement park with the fam won’t make one think they can see the end of the world from the top of the rollercoaster. And that’s what the conclusion of “Zombieland” feels like – a subversive family outing where the family unit threatens to come unglued only to emerge even closer than before.

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