In what is widely considered to be a bad year for movies, I’ve finally been able to add one more title to a slim list of viewable and re-viewable movies. Zombieland is one of the best, funniest, most entertaining films every made about zombie attacks (for the record, the other films on my 2009 list are Orphan, Inglourious Basterds, and Antichrist).
But what do we talk about when we talk about zombies? The earliest cinematic zombies are found in the Bela Lugosi cheapo White Zombie, where zombies are people controlled robotically by a hypnotic and charismatic villain. In I Walked with a Zombie, a remake of Jane Eyre, zombies are supposedly the dead (but not really), resurrected to do slave labor. A key, transitional zombie effort is The Zombies of Mora-Tau, an obscure horror film released by Columbia in 1957 that happens to anticipate a lot of the zombie myths later codified in ’60s drive-in movies and in Italian films, such elements as the slow moving hands-outstretched zombies impervious to everything except fire. Since the regional horror film The Night of the Living Dead, zombies have been those recently dead or newly bitten who are infected with something, in the case of Romero’s first film, some vague meteorological event that reanimates the recently buried, where the monsters are slow-moving, drooling, intestine-draped retards, a concept which may or may derive from Ed Wood’s Plan 9 From Outer Space. There is by now of course a long history of zombie movies, but the fast moving zombie seems to have been inaugurated with 28 Days Later, which is really an unofficial remake of Romero’s The Crazies, in which the “zombies” are victims of a world wide virus. The fast moving zombie is supposed to be scarier, but there really hasn’t been a truly scary moment in a zombie movie (as opposed to many horrific moments) since the scene in Night of the Living Dead when Barbra fled the graveyard and got into the car that rolled down the road with Zombie Zero chasing her.
Since the advent of Romeroworld, the zombie has been portrayed as a relentless scavenger of food, but exclusively human food: zombies don’t seem to like pets. In fact, as the genre has evolved, some zombies themselves become pets, at least to military scientists eager to derive crucial information from their behavior. The zombie’s “horror” to human beings is that their deadness makes them singleminded, and impervious to reason or rational argumentation. They are stupid, or act like greedy children, and we human beings, when not scared of them, like to shoot them for sport and amusement. Zombies also represent, if you are a Freudian, the explosion of the appetite driven id, taking down the fragile ego and its tenuous connection to structured civilization.
That’s the situation in Zombieland, which is kind of a take off on the novel World War Z. A global zombie infection has eradicated civilization as we know it and roving bands of survivors attempt to stay alive by following a set of rules, which the main character, nicknamed Columbus (Jesse Eisenberg) after his home town in the manner of an army private in a WWII film, narrates to the viewer at the start of Zombieland. Among the rules are No. 2, “Double Tap,” i.e., don’t be stingy with bullets, and No. 31, “Check the Back Seat.” These rules have amusing pay offs throughout the film, as does a cameo by Bill Murray as himself.
Columbus teams up with Tallahassee (Woody Harrelson), a sort of Mad Max figure, and later with Wichita (Emma Stone) and Little Rock (Abigail Breslin), two scam artist sisters. The team ends up in Los Angeles at the mansion of Murray and then, for the film’s climax, in a carnival. Eisenberg, who was the star of the recent Adventureland, just can’t seem to stay away from fun fairs.
But Zombieland isn’t really about zombies. It is about love. Director Ruben Fleischer and credited writers Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick have made a movie about how love and the desire for love survive even world wide devastation.
Jaws is a great American film, and one of its greatest moments is when Ellen Brody says to her husband, “Wanna get drunk and fool around?” The scene celebrates intimacy and easefulness between two people and, for an alienated lonely segment of the audience, also shows a woman initiating sex with a man. Jaws offers up a vital, admirable portrait of a marriage, one, by the way, that is much better than the marriage in the book, which is compromised by infidelity and other problems and emotions. In Zombieland, Columbus, in a flashback that shows his first encounter with a zombie, finds himself in what he calls a dream situation, on a couch with the cute girl next door, who was just attacked by a homeless man on the street who tried to bite her. As they sit next to each other and she snuggles up to him for protection, Columbus says, “I always, my whole life, wanted to brush a girl’s hair over her ear.” It is one of the most heartbreaking sentences ever uttered in a movie. And, like the list of anti-zombie rules, it has a glourious payoff at the end.
Zombieland is really about is male longing. Columbus has survived at the opening of the film because he had no friends or family. He’s a loner who, he says, acted like other people were zombies before they were really zombies. Though his aloneness has “saved” him from the virus and from attacks, he still longs for the intimacy. Maybe it’s the way a high school nerd longs for a cheerleader, or the girl nerd in the class, but in any case the need is present, and in conflict with his strategic self-isolation. When he meets Wichita he is ready to fall in love, but of course, as in Flaubert’s Education sentimentale, one never purely gets what one wants. Zombieland is a comedy and a romance and a social commentary on anomie all wrapped up in a misleading dystopian tale of zombie hegemony.
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