Whether set in a sleepy London suburb or a subterranean missile silo, most zombie films shuffle to life at the unhurried pace of the undead. Not this one. Sprinting from the starting blocks, Ruben Fleischer’s debut wittily dispenses with the apocalypse during its credit sequence, a virtuoso corpse-flinging montage of brains, bras and windshields exploding in glorious slow-mo. We then speed-date scaredy-cat survivor Columbus (Adventureland’s Jesse Eisenberg) who’s managed to avoid becoming a “human Happy Meal” by following rules that storm the screen as captions.
As Columbus’ ultra-vigilant edicts illustrate, writers Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick are extremely movie-savvy, their whipsmart script offering indispensable advice such as “Check the backseat” (rule #31) and “Don’t be stingy with your bullets” (rule #4). George A. Romero would surely agree. But you also get the sense that Columbus nursed these anxieties before the world went to hell on a handcart. He’s a sweet, endearingly awkward character whose dream to find “a marriageable woman” and brush her hair behind her ear makes an amusing contrast to his new cohort, snakeskin cowboy Tallahassee (Harrelson, approaching a career-best) who’s “in the ass-kicking business – and business is gooooood!”
Though it’s a little light on plot and jeopardy, Zombieland’s distinction is that it’s funny throughout, often screamingly so. Besides Eisenberg’s brilliant Peep Show-style voiceover and surreal /Scrubs/-like digressions, the cast (including Emma Stone and Abigail Breslin as a pair of con-artist sisters) are all accomplished funny people. Meanwhile, an extended midsection trip to the Hollywood home of a Very Famous Comic Actor (no spoilers) allows said guest star to send himself up royally. “I’ve been watching you since I’ve been masturbating!” overshares Tallahassee, with the sort of infectious enthusiasm typical of a rom-zom-com that more than earns its place in an already overcrowded field. Better than Braindead or Shaun? Nope. But make no mistake, Zombieland rules.
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An out-and-out, stand-on-the-seat-and-shout-it-aloud crowd-pleaser, Zombieland is one of the better Hollywood comedies of the year. Rarely has society’s total meltdown been such zippy, carefree fun.