The zombies of Zombieland don't shamble and shuffle like those of George A. Romero's seminal living-dead pictures. These flesheaters are of the run-and-sprint variety: They come at you with alarming speed, like the ones in the Dawn of the Dead remake or the virus-carriers in 28 Days Later. These zombies are post modern - Undead Version 2.0 - and so is the movie.
More comedy than horror show, Zombieland is the latest - and arguably most irreverent - attempt to wring laughs from a doom-and-gloom scenario in which the world has been overrun by the dead who have risen to eat the living. "I wish I could tell you this was still America," laments Columbus (Jesse Eisenberg), the film's narrator, a timid college student who is one of the few remaining survivors of the unspecified plague (an offshoot of mad cow disease) that has decimated the country.
Columbus has devised a list of common-sense rules to ensure survival in this hostile new universe, such as "Cardio," because you'll need to run pretty fast when the undead are after you, or the ever-useful "Double Tap," which means don't be stingy with your bullets, and always pump one more slug into a fallen zombie - just to be sure.
Columbus' safety-first approach to survival is the mirror-opposite of the lackadaisical attitude of Tallahassee (Woody Harrelson), a gun-toting thrill seeker who roams the country gleefully killing zombies while obsessively searching for the world's last remaining Twinkie. The pair are Zombieland's amusingly mismatched odd-couple heroes; they are eventually joined by sisters (Emma Stone and Abigail Breslin) enroute to a California amusement park that is rumored to be completely devoid of zombies.
Screenwriters Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick originally conceived of Zombieland as the pilot episode for a TV series, then expanded the script into feature-film length. Plentiful traces remain of the awesome show that might have been, such as a brief interlude, complete with flashy graphics, highlighting the "Zombie Kill of the Week," awarded to the most elaborate and ingenious dispatching of a monster.
The laidback structure of Zombieland, which amiably ambles along with the four protagonists as they embark on a series of mini-adventures, is further evidence of the project's TV roots. A visit to a supermarket, a tour of Beverly Hills and the vandalizing of a souvenir shop for the reckless thrill of it don't exactly add up to a driving plot, which is why Zombieland feels slighter and less essential than previous zombie comedies such as Shaun of the Dead or Return of the Living Dead.
But first-time director Ruben Fleischer gives Zombieland the look and feel of a real movie, framing his widescreen images with impressive skill and creativity. Fleischer also displays a genuine flair for comedic timing (part of the reason the jokes work so well is that they've been shot and edited so skillfully), and he deftly leavens the movie's broad comedic overtones with a layer of pathos, gently reminding us of the great tragedy nestled underneath the laughs, which helps the characters take root as something more than just clowns.
But Fleischer never lets Zombieland tip over into drama for too long, because the overriding mission here is to laugh in the face of the apocalypse (when Harrelson's Tallahassee recounts an unexpectedly moving tragedy from his past, the scene catches you by surprise with its sadness, until Harrelson caps off the story with "I haven't cried like that since Titanic"). Throw in a zombie roller-coaster ride (literally), the best opening-credits sequence since Watchmen and the year's funniest surprise celebrity cameo, and Zombieland becomes a blood-soaked blast of gory - but not too gory - horror fun.