This whole vampires-vs.-zombies debate about which monster is more vital to the pop-culture zeitgeist has lately escalated to nuclear proportions. Both sides have gotten shriller and more dogmatic, as if they were wrangling over a public option in health-care reform or whether it's O.K. to tweet during sex. As someone who's amped up the decibel level on the creature-features subject (see my review of Thirst), I now believe the warring parties need to find some small patch of common ground. So can we agree on just one thing? A vampire movie (or novel, or TV show) is mainly about vampires; a zombie movie is not about zombies but about the people being chased by them. The undead may have no personality, but their intended victims do. They're the ones who matter. That makes any zombie film, at heart, a relationship picture.
The creators of Zombieland writers Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick and director Ruben Fleischer, all of whom have worked for MTV know this. They start with a premise that sounds like a horror-comedy remake of National Lampoon's Vacation. In a world where a pandemic has fatally infected virtually everyone, an improvised family of four drives cross-country to find refuge in a reputedly zombie-free California amusement park. Then the filmmakers bend this into a coming-of-age love-story road-movie quest epic. With many sharp laughs. And characters rich enough to occupy any movie that doesn't depend on head-bashing and entrails-feeding. And a deft directorial touch that rarely pushes the humor in your face.
The four main characters (there are just seven speaking roles in the picture) are known only by the names of cities they come from or hope to get to. They also represent four types familiar from other genres. Columbus, for example, is your standard teen-nerd hero. Played by Jesse Eisenberg (The Squid and the Whale) with a confidence that proves Michael Cera does not have a copyright on bright, inward, fretful, sexually underemployed young men, Columbus locks himself in his room, safe from all contact, human and other. So the sudden, desperate door-banging of the hot chick from the next apartment (Amber Heard) is the knock of both opportunity and apocalypse. She's been attacked by a ravaging zombie and needs the shelter of Columbus' arms. "Set aside the feverish homeless cannibal," he muses in a voice-over, "I'm living in a dream."
When that date doesn't turn out so well, he hits the road and hooks up with Tallahassee (Woody Harrelson, parading splenetic majesty in both the role of a lifetime and a more cheerful remix of his nutcase from Natural Born Killers), who's as confrontational as Columbus is constricted. Tallahassee's mission, aside from setting the world record for zombie decapitations, is to find a pack of his beloved Twinkies. And time is against him. "Believe it or not," he tells Columbus, "Twinkies have an expiration date." So do the lives of these mismatched amigos if they can't come to some accommodation with two sisters who may be America's last functioning humans.
Wichita (Emma Stone, she of the sultry voice and fetching overbite who was Jonah Hill's love object in Superbad) and Little Rock (Little Miss Sunshine's Abigail Breslin) are also serial grifters. They relieve a gas-station attendant (Chuck & Buck's Mike White) of his money, and Columbus and Tallahassee of their car and weapons. Little Rock is mature and calculating beyond her years, or, as she explains while frisking Tallahassee, "Twelve is the new 20 gun, please." Wichita, who's about Columbus' age, has had all the world experience he's missed. For Columbus, whose idea of emotional outlawry is to unbuckle his seat belt and whom Wichita refers to as having "the guts of a guppy," she's one more woman to desire and fear. But, hey, the sisters are human. So the twosome become a foursome and head off for Pacific Playland.
The quartet pretty quickly arrives in Los Angeles, where a zombie Charlie Chaplin can be seen outside Mann's Chinese Theater, and crashes the seemingly unoccupied mansion of Bill Murray. Catastrophe: no Twinkies. "See," Wichita tells Tallahassee, "I told you we should have gone to Russell Crowe's." Murray does materialize playing a solitary star like Adam Sandler's Funny People character, but in a gentler reading in a cameo that's wonderfully written and played and boasts one of the funniest exit lines in zombie-movie history.
Except for a therapeutic-trashing-of-a-tchotchke-store scene the movie could have done without, Zombieland is an exhilarating ride, start to finish. Edgar Wright and Simon Pegg set a high bar for this subgenre with Shaun of the Dead, but Reese, Wernick and Fleischer may have trumped them. This isn't just a good zombie comedy. It's a damn fine movie, period. And that's high praise, coming from a vampire guy.