Zombie cinema has already been sliced into such thin micro-genres— zombie pole dancers! zombie Nazis! —that auteurs of the undead should probably stop striving for originality. And yet Zombieland (Columbia) is something new, perhaps because it borrows from another medium. While the movie may not have been hatched inside a PlayStation, Zombieland reveals why every video-game movie ever made has been horrendous. Games, particularly the kind that get optioned by Hollywood, are supposed to be fun. Movies based on games, however, take themselves altogether too seriously, evoking the mood of the dour, pixel-faced characters rather than the thrill of the bloodthirsty, button-mashing gameplay. Zombieland, with its belching, goo-spewing undead, looks at the scenery of a video game through a fanboy's eyes. What's the point of wading through a zombie nation if you're not going to kick some zombie ass?
As in most zombie flicks, it hardly matters how the world got to be overrun by bite-happy creeps. In Zombieland, it has something to do with a bad hamburger, as Jesse Eisenberg's narrator—known as Columbus—explains: "Mad cow became mad person became mad zombie." What's more important are the rules for survival, which appear on-screen as they're related by our hero: Do cardio ("The first ones to go were the fatties," Columbus says), beware of bathrooms, check the back seat, and so forth. When a previously stated rule becomes relevant—when nature calls, for instance—the relevant text pops up, occasionally getting splattered with blood.
The pop-up bit works precisely because Zombieland unspools like a game—how can you survive a zombie horde armed with a shotgun, an SUV, and a smart mouth? First-time director Ruben Fleischer goes for an aesthetic that's no more complicated than "stuff that looks cool": blood and guts and bile and tendons hitting the camera, glass breaking in slow motion, naked female zombies running in slow motion, and bad guys on fire (and in slow motion). Fleischer comes from the land of music videos, and he's a good bet to follow the career arc of Zack Snyder: from the zombie leagues to surprise blockbusterdom to comic-book franchise. (It took Snyder just three steps: Dawn of the Dead to 300to Watchmen.)
Zombieland's dead zones come when the fun veers toward mindlessness: a SportsCenter-esque "zombie kill of the week" and the tone-deaf repetition of the sixth-grade-approved catchphrase "nut up or shut up." But these down moments are fleeting, drowned out by the joyous din of zombie slaying and a scattering of subtler touches, such as Woody Harrelson's shotgun-savant Tallahassee painting a "3" on the side of his various commandeered vehicles, presumably a tribute to NASCAR legend Dale Earnhardt. There's also a deliciously inspired cameo that I won't spoil here but will happily reveal in a companion post on Slate's "Brow Beat" blog. Warning to all who click here: Spoilers await!
Despite running a lithe 82 minutes, Zombieland manages to transform itself from a post-apocalyptic third-person shooter to a buddy road movie to a slasher coming-of-age story. By the end, Zombieland resembles an undead Adventureland—a Pride and Prejudice and Zombies for the Facebook generation. In both films, Jesse Eisenberg must win over a dream girl (Kristen Stewart/Emma Stone) who's been hardened by the circumstances of modern life (an affair with a married guy/the zombie apocalypse). And in the last reel, Zombieland even manages to wander its way into an amusement park. Only one of the two movies, however, features an undead clown with blood spewing from his mouth who hungers for human flesh.