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Friday, October 31, 2014

HubrisWeen 2, Day 26: Zombieland (2009)

Written by Rhett Reese & Paul Wernick
Directed by Ruben Fleischer

Jesse Eisenberg:  Columbus
Woody Harrelson:  Tallahassee
Emma Stone:  Wichita
Abigail  Breslin:  Little Rock

Monster movies have rules. It's one of the pleasures of the genre--stakes and sunlight kill vampires, silver bullets will take care of werewolves and messing with an infernal Rubik's Cube can keep one's soul (and body) out of the hands of Cenobites. Without some kind of weakness, monsters are just unstoppable antagonists  and there's no way to create drama or tension if there's not even the slimmest glimmer of hope for the people in the monster's path (for crying out loud, even the Terminator wasn't quite invulnerable).

And over the last ten or fifteen years, zombies have become part of the Western movie monster canon. This makes my heart sing, because when I was a high-school loser I made all my friends watch Dawn of the Dead; it's still as relevant and grotesque as it ever was. Living in a world where random non-horror-fan Americans know that head shots kill shuffling corpses and bites carry lethal infection is not something I ever expected, but I'm perfectly content to be there now. For that matter, enough people have seen 28 Days Later and its sequel or the Dawn of the Dead remake to know that old-school shuffling moaner zombies have been somewhat replaced by the more contemporary "sprinting dead" model. While I'm talking about things related to the movie that make me happy--the writers and director are very obviously fans of not just the zombie genre, but horror films as a whole.

I can tell that because the movie starts out as a first-person found footage horror movie (and one with some genuinely striking and appalling imagery; the Presidential limo is upside down and on fire in the ruins of Washington, D.C.). A fast zombie sees the person capturing the aftermath of an attack and chases him down; the moron with the camera runs away backwards to keep the zombie in the shot, trips over something he didn't see and dies horribly 55 seconds into the film because that's how things would play out in real life--it also seems to be something of a mission statement on the part of the filmmakers--funny, gruesome, metatextual and dependent on the audience recognizing the situations that are being skewered (sometimes literally).

Oh, and speaking of rules, the voiceover explaining how utterly screwed the human race is? It belongs to a permanently twitchy geek who is only alive because his obsessive personality and pathological fears have manifested as a set of behavioral rules that he follows in order to live another day. The first two rules are that one must maintain one's physical fitness (everyone too out-of-shape to escape from a sprinting infected died in the first days of the apocalypse, which actually makes sense), and that shooting a zombie only once is a recipe for disaster. The "double tap" means that a survivor is considerably less likely to get a fatal surprise when a zombie gets knocked down, but it gets up again. Shooting it in the head again is a way to make sure you keep it down.

Also, the graphics used to keep the rules listed on the screen are a nice way to keep things visually interesting--they aren't just appearing on the screen in a typewriter font or something like that. Thought was put into their placement and use each time. And while the so-far-unnamed protagonist explains his rules through voiceover, the audience gets to see what happens to people who aren't living by those particular codes of conduct (SPOILER:  They die, horribly, although not always from a zombie attack). Then the credits roll, with super-slow-motion tableaux of people trying and failing to escape from sprinting rage zombies, in situations ranging from the comic to the ghastly (and occasionally both--the three-legged-race of the damned at a picnic is an image that stayed with me for five years after seeing the movie).

We meet the narrator next; he's a thin young white guy carrying a shotgun and gassing up his car in the empty suburban wasteland of Garland, Texas (he assures the audience that it looked like that before the apocalypse). While talking to himself he drops the knowledge that it's been two months since a disease-riddled gas station hamburger hit the system of Patient Zero of the fast zombie epidemic; for all the narrator knows, he is the single remaining uninfected human being in America. Even he thinks his continued survival is unlikely, but with his handy list of rules and his tangled inner web of phobias and paranoiac suspicions he's actually doing pretty well. And when he gets attacked by three zombies after fueling up his car, his adherance to things like buckling his seat belt in the car pay off with him living to run another day.

While walking from Texas to Ohio (he was going to college in Austin when the world ended, and wants to go back to his hometown to see if his parents are still alive; it's as good a reason to get up in the morning after the end of the world as any), another survivor crosses his path. It's a middle-aged goateed white dude in a Cadillac SUV customized with a snowplow blade and Dale Earnhardt's number hastily painted on the side. Just moments after the protagonist was talking to himself about how much he'd like to see a human face again, the car roars up the highway clogged with empty cars. And the first thing he does is hide, then stands a dirt bike up as a makeshift barricade. There's a wordless standoff between the two (the younger man literally shaking with adrenaline and panic) before they come to an accommodation and the narrator gets a ride.

The new guy introduces himself as Tallahassee and refers to the narrator as Columbus; he doesn't want to learn anyone's real name; the implication is that he's very, very used to people dying on him at this point in post-human history). They make a comically mismatched pair--Columbus is terrified of everything to the point of near-paralysis and Tallahassee drinks Jack straight from the bottle while driving--reckless beyond rationality. Together they kind of average out.

Tallahassee turns out to expose himself to danger above and beyond the whole "America crawling with animated corpses that eat people" risk factors. It's been sixty days since the last time anything got delivered to a grocery store or gas station, and he's hoping to find at least one undamaged, non-stale Twinkie in the ruins of civilization. Unfortunately the truck he found is full of Snowballs and Tallahassee hates the consistency of coconut.

Columbus gives us a glimpse of his life before the world fell apart; school and online gaming were the only things he really did. No friends in real life and as little contact with other people as he could manage. It worked for him, but his world was empty years before it was for everyone else. A neighbor interrupts his World of Warcraft session for the evening in a panic (she refers to him as "408" after his apartment number, so we don't get his name). He fails to come across as anything but a childlike goof talking to his neighbor from 406; she tells him about being confronted by a crazy homeless man that tried to bite her in a random attack.

406 falls asleep nestled against Columbus on his couch as he finally makes some kind of tentative human connection. Unfortunately, when she wakes up she's drooling infected blood and pus and her skin is rotting off her face. It turns out the only thing in his apartment that's remotely useful as a weapon is the ceramic top of the toilet tank, but that's perfectly serviceable as an anti-reanimated-corpse implement. And seeing his neighbor holding herself up on a shattered ankle still trying to bite him forces the protagonist to confront what's actually in front of him--he might be impaled on his own neuroses but he's aware of what's going on after that attack.

Back in the present day, Tallahassee wants to talk about sex. I didn't think Columbus could look any less comfortable then he did before, but Jesse Eisenberg digs deep and manages to achieve it. It's probably the only time anyone's been glad to see an undead woman sucking bone marrow out of a shattered human thigh bone, because at least that means there won't be any more euphemisms for coitus coming out of Woody Harrelson's mouth.

A stop at an abandoned grocery store leads to some genuinely impressive mayhem as Tallahassee beats a trio of obese zombies to real death with a banjo, an aluminum baseball bat (the stuntman really earned his hazard pay in that scene) and a pair of garden shears. And then a beautiful uninfected young woman walks into the pair's vision. She's Wichita, and her younger sister Little Rock has been bitten. Little Rock demands that one of the pair ends her life before the disease eats through her brain, and Wichita finally says it's her responsibility to take care of the family. Which she does by turning the gun on the two men and stealing their car. Tallahassee's double-middle-finger as he realizes he's been played is a real joy to behold. (The redneck:  "Nice goin', genius." The geek:  "You're the one who gave her the gun.")

The girls are looking for something, too. Little Rock asks if it's true that Pacific Playland is really the last spot in the country free of zombies and Wichita assures her that this is indeed the case. While they're driving off in search of the happiest place on the Cursed Earth, the Y-chromosome-bearing duo are looking for a car and making small talk in a town notable for the sheer number of auto accidents on the streets. Tallahassee also beats the shit out of a defenseless minivan with a crowbar as a way to vent a little hostility (although he did not limber up ahead of time and strains himself; if he'd listened to Columbus that might not have happened).

Soon enough they find an undamaged bright yellow Humvee with the driver's hands and forearms at the wheel and a duffel bag full of firearms in the back seat ("Thank God for rednecks!" is declaimed in a state of near-religious awe by Tallahassee when he sees the arsenal they just stumbled over). The older, crazier, more violent man drives off in search of the girls so he can have revenge and we get to see a flashback of him in happier times, utterly devoted to a puppy he had named Buck. "I lost him, and there ain't no getting him back". He's looking only to the future because the past is an open wound that will never stop bleeding.

The girls turn out to have abandoned their fried-engine SUV somewhere on a lonely rural two-lane highway and while Tallahassee checks the situation out, Columbus gets snuck up on and taken hostage by the prepubescent Little Rock. At least this time the two men are still allowed in the vehicle (and Columbus keeps working on that crush he's nursing on Wichita). Another flashback shows Wichita and Little Rock working a con on an overly trusting gas station attendant (with Wichita telling him a lost engagement ring was worth three thousand bucks, Little Rock "finding" it and selling it to him for 400 dollars, and leaving him holding the bag). One more firearm-swiping reversal and John Woo "guns at each others' heads" later, Columbus finally shows a little steel and demands that the four people stuck in the car together not point guns at each other and not endlessly make things even more difficult for everyone.

A sullen detente settles over the four people in the SUV as Little Rock reveals their plans to get to Pacific Playland in California. Columbus asks if Wichita has heard anything about his namesake town and she says it's burned to the ground. And, wonder of wonders, Tallahassee is the one to try and get her to be a little more sensitive to the emotional needs of the other people in the group (really, this scene is the one where I realized the movie was going to stay good till the end--it's one thing to have wacky gruesome zombie action, but another for the script and actors combining alchemically to make characters that the viewer genuinely cares about. It's also the first moment that Tallahassee expresses any kind of concern for another person in the film).

Columbus realizes that finding his family alive at the end of his journey was always a pipe dream, but he's still shattered by the realization. And Wichita undoubtedly knows what that's like, because every single person left alive in Zombieland watched their family die. The film doesn't shy away from the emotional toll that survival can take. At night (with Tallahassee and Little Rock out cold in the back of the Humvee), Wichita stops by an abandoned truck and wishes Columbus good luck in his travels; the paranoid dork decides to stay with the group instead because he wants to be with her rather than taking chances on his own.

Later that night Tallahassee is starting to feel cooped up and twitchy in the car, so they pull over at a wigwam-themed tourist trap called the Kemo Sabe to shoot a zombie in the head and poke around--just do anything that isn't sitting in the car or driving the car (as the veteran of a decade of family driving vacations, I can fully sympathize). Columbus tries on some cologne and gets needled by Tallahassee about wanting to have sex with their captor / companion. Things escalate and Columbus actually shows a little spine when he reacts to the teasing (and he gets hit with exactly 45% of Tallahassee's full strength in retaliation) and then everyone just has fun knocking stuff over and destroying things. And it turns out to be exactly what they needed as a way to vent a little bit of steam.

The miles roll on as every possible conversational topic is exhausted (and Little Rock tries to explain the setup for "Hannah Montana" while Tallahassee is driving). Everyone keeps from getting on each others' nerves enough to avoid bloodshed and soon enough they're in California. In Hollywood, a quick detour by the scorched ruins of Grauman's Chinese Theater for a star map leads the group to the home of Bill Murray (Tallahassee wants to rest up somewhere really nice), and then the movie goes utterly and charmingly bonkers. If you haven't seen the movie yet, please, go and watch it before you finish the review.

I'll wait.

I have time.

It's been 26 days of October-appropriate cinema. It's okay if you have From Hell It Came spoiled for you, but this is different and if you haven't had the pleasure of watching this one yet you should take care of that before you continue reading..

Last chance.

It's not too late to re-read 5000 words on Telstar:  The Joe Meek Story.

Okay, it's on your head.

There's a shot of Murray rising from his bed when he hears people in his mansion, shuffling and moaning as he approaches the survivors we've been following for the whole film--and it turns out that he's one of the very few remaining live human beings in the world.

Gloriously, he's not playing himself so much as he's playing the pop culture conception of himself--the guy who steals bites of strangers' lunches in Central Park and tells them nobody will ever believe it happened, and the most entertaining guest David Letterman ever has. Three of the four people in the group are instantly star-struck when they wander through his estate. The fourth, and coincidentally the youngest, doesn't know who he is (Tallahassee:  "Hey, I've never hit a kid before," but it sounds like he's awfully tempted at that point). Really, I don't know who else they might have approached for this section of the film but I cannot imagine any living actor that would have worked as well as Murray does here.

After a fakeout to the characters and the audience about Murray showing up as one of the undead (he's wearing makeup to blend in because zombies don't attack each other) Tallahassee and Wichita are utterly starstruck. I also like to believe that Woody Harrelson actually screamed with joy every time he saw Murray on set in Kingpin as well as this movie--Method acting at its finest. The semi-connected gibberish that Tallahassee lets out when he's gushing over the SNL star is a fearless performance and also perhaps the first time that Tallahassee felt good about anything other than breaking stuff or killing zombies since Outbreak Zero.

So, while Columbus and Little Rock are in Murray's absurdly plush home theater watching Ghostbusters, Wichita and Tallahassee get super, super high off of the comedy legend's weed stash and re-enact scenes from that movie with him. I especially like the great touch that Tallahassee gets to wear  the actual uniform and proton pack prop while Murray has a canister vacuum cleaner--he's such a good host.

Unfortunately, everyone's so stoned that they think it's a good idea to have Bill Murray, in full zombie makeup, sneak up on Columbus to scare him. He winds up blowing a hole clean through Murray's torso with the shotgun. Apologies and True Confessions abound and the quartet takes time to grieve and salute the fallen icon. That night, over real-money Monopoly there's a conversation about the good points to living through Armageddon (and Eisenberg, who would go on to play Mark Zuckerberg a year later, gets a dig in at Facebook). And then the bad points come up and Columbus figures out that the "puppy" Tallahassee lost earlier in the outbreak wasn't a dog. There's a legitimately heartbreaking look back at the insane brutal redneck in happier, loving times and Tallahassee finally feels close enough to the others in the group to let his guard down and tell them exactly how much he's lost.

Later on Tallahassee and Little Rock bond over a shooting lesson (destroying a swath of Bill Murray's antiques and china), while Wichita and Columbus split a bottle of 1997 Georges de Latour and reminisce on their adolescence in that year ("My first school dance. It was Sadie Hawkins, so...girls' choice." "You didn't go?" "It was girls' choice". Compared to that fiasco of a year, getting a fake tattoo and seeing Anaconda as one's first R-rated movie seem positively wonderful. But, wonder of wonders, Columbus finds out that he might be just about the last man on earth, but it's never too late to actually be a girl's choice for a dance. He doesn't have the slightest idea what to do but figures it out, and gets what might well be his first kiss slow-dancing by candlelight at the end of the world.

Or at least he would have, if Tallahassee didn't show up to ask for help to move a couch and build a fort with Little Rock. Poor bastard. To the film's credit, it does show that both Columbus and Wichita are missing out and have regrets about it not happening. But it's after the girls leave for Pacific Playland and it's too late for either of the two to do anything about it. Night falls and Columbus is packing up his gear and getting ready to leave while Tallahassee mentions plans to go into Mexico, saying that letting people close is only going to get you hurt.

That night, while the two men are having their little heart to heart, Wichita and Little Rock break into Pacific Playland turn on the power to all the rides and attractions. For one brief moment, Little Rock smiles just like a kid again, even though all the horror that she undoubtedly saw for the last two months of the Zompocalypse.

And every blood-drooling sprinting zombie for miles around sees and hears the rides as they get activated (I'm willing to bet a substantial amount of the movie's budget got spent on this third-act setpiece, and it was worth every last penny). Dozens--if not hundreds--of zombies converge on the sisters in the shadows and neon of the second-tier theme park midway, and Little Rock thinks fast enough to get on a drop tower ride that at least keeps the women off the ground and away from the horde. But they've only go so many rounds in their shotguns and unless something really unexpected happens they're going to need to save one last shell apiece for themselves.

It's not unexpected that Columbus would want to go after them and try to save the day. (It's also not unexpected that he wouldn't get very far on Bill Murray's motorcycle since he's never ridden one before.) What is unexpected is that Tallahassee is willing to risk losing his life, and worse, getting close to people again, but he does. And it's time for the two men to ride to the rescue, with both of them using their own individual apocalypse-survival skills to clear the zombies out from Pacific Playland in a sustained quarter hour of utter badassnesss. And even better, everything that Columbus and Tallahassee do in their rescue attempt is completely consistent with their earlier characterization and behavior. Tallahassee fights in a continuing berserker rage while Columbus is faster and uses hsi surroundings to his advantage, and in the manner of third-act climaxes in action movies, faces down his fears and defeats them--not for himself, but because he's trying to protect someone he genuinely cares about. And there's still time for a sound effects gag or two when Columbus has to enter melee range with a blood-drooling zombie clown.

When I first saw the trailers for this movie I figured it was going to be an American retread of Shaun of the Dead, but not in a good way at all. I was amazingly pleasantly surprised, instead, to find that it was an American version of Shaun of the Dead that celebrates the wide open spaces of the country's southwest. Instead of English pub culture and a synchronized zombie beating to Queen on the jukebox there's a look at celebrity and junk food--cultural and otherwise. The people who made this movie knew how to make a scare, a laugh, an action sequence and a tearjerker all work. It's the complete spectrum of emotion done in a single zombie movie. From the reviews of his later films, the director never quite hit the same heights again (possibly because studios expect more from you when you've got a bigger cast and budget than when you're making a silly horror comedy). But supposedly we're getting a sequel in the not too distant future, and I'd quite like to see what happens next with these characters in that world. Hopefully next time they'll know better than to turn on all the theme park lights at night after the end of the world.

This review is part of the HubrisWeen 2014 marathon. The other reviews for movies beginning with today’s letter are:

The Terrible Claw Reviews:  Zombies of Mora Tau

Yes, I Know:  Zombies on Broadway

1 comment:

  1. Possibly my all time fave zombie movie. And that's a top five cameo of any movie everwhere.

    But I dread sequels. The "more of what we think succeeded the first time" formula rarely works for me.