Monday, March 15, 2010
I think it’s time to reconsider this whole zombie thing. I enjoy them as much as the next fellow, but there’s only so much you can take. Once upon a time, they served as handy-dandy all-purpose vehicles for free-floating dread and social satire. Now they’ve become so much less than that—just another warning sign on the road to obnoxiously self-aware and overly referential filmmaking. The joke has been told too many times. Not that we don’t laugh anymore. Oh, no, now everyone laughs before you even get to the punch line.
Of course zombies were always ridiculous as a threat. I understand that. I know how difficult it must be take them seriously. The lumbering, moaning things are really only terrifying in that mystical cinematic world where a person can’t run more than ten steps without tripping on his own feet. And so people come to think zombies need to be fast and agile, just to prompt audience members to momentarily jump in their seats. Don’t they realize the point of the zombie is its excruciating slowness? They’re meant to pin you in your seat and make you squirm uncomfortably as they implacably break through the door and dismember some poor sap, all while signifying the class struggle or racism or the conflict in the Middle East or whatever. Sure, they were slow, but those bastards could really multi-task.
But we’re past that point, and there’s no going back. We’re now living in the era of zombie kitsch: zombie parades, zombie escape plans, and finally, inevitably, Zombieland.
There’s no returning to more innocent (read: irony-free) times—which actually sums up the general thrust of this film, directed by first-timer Ruben Fleischer. The usual rag-tag group of survivors band together, their guiding concern being not quaint niceties like survival, but rather the yearning for lost childhoods. That’s right: we’ve taken the first step towards a Wes Anderson zombie film.
Led by a neurotic loner named Columbus (Jesse Eisenberg), all of the characters rather fittingly take their names from their hometowns, but this clinging to the past often comes across as little more than an affectation. This is particularly true in the case of Tallahassee (Woody Harrelson), who searches the ravaged wasteland for Twinkies, which apparently symbolize happier days (instead of, more reasonably, the artificiality of our culture or meagerness of ambitions, both of which probably cut too close for this film).
The Twinkie gag grows stale quickly (certainly more quickly than it would take one of those creamy sponge-turds to expire), but the film does have more poignant reminders of innocence lost to compensate. Two con-artist sisters named Wichita (Emma Stone) and Little Rock (Abigail Breslin) make their way across the country to reach Pacific Playland, an amusement park both visited when younger. The older sister, Wichita, suggests this is for the sake of the still-adolescent Little Rock, whose childhood has been interrupted by the complete collapse of civilization. But there’s something a little sad in how they talk about the park being zombie-free. The pair is essentially seeking refuge in an idyllic place from childhood, hiding in a happy memory to avoid the horrors of the changed world.
Such somber realizations—which flicker by only briefly before disappearing like ghosts—bring a touch of poignancy to these otherwise unremarkable characters. While the actors are uniformly likeable, they’re stuck with dull characters in a dull plot, all of it too familiar to be engaging. Jesse Eisenberg as the insecure nerd who gets the girl in the end? Woody Harrelson as the crazy tough guy with the soft side? With such predictable casting, it’s a credit to the actors that they manage to stay so alert in their performances. Wake me when the next zombie attack is over, boys, will you?
Buried in all of this is a promising idea for a film that uses an apocalyptic shock to mark the definitive and irreversible break between childhood and adulthood. Unfortunately, Zombieland, while never totally devoid of pleasures, is too unimaginative to build on that promise. For all its nice little digressions and details—the wonky joy of hanging out with Bill Murray after the end of the world, Woody Harrelson dabbing his teary eyes with a fistful of dollars—the film is too happy to settle for spicing up generic characters and a ready-made plot with a bit of splatter and a few movie references. Like the people in this film, I’m stuck yearning for simpler times that are long gone, back before self-awareness came along and screwed everything up—zombie nostalgia.