Perhaps zombies are inherently funny. While humor has always been a staple of horror films, it has come to define the zombie sub-genre. Danny Boyle's more serious-minded 28 Days Later may have kicked off the zombie revival in this decade, but Edgar Wright's Shaun of the Dead has clearly had a more lasting influence. (It's tempting to think of recent zombie films on the whole as a particularly gruesome British Invasion, or perhaps a Zombie New Wave.) George Romero, the father of modern zombie films, deserves partial credit for sending the genre in this direction by setting Dawn of the Dead (1978) in a shopping mall, transforming the bleak siege and potent racial metaphor of his original film into a send-up of mindless consumerism, a twist both sly and heavy-handed. Zombie films, whether serious or humorous, have also always been vehicles for social commentary.
Ruben Fleischer's Zombieland falls squarely into the “zom-com” category. The film takes the premise of 28 Days Later and injects it with Shaun of the Dead's humor, also borrowing heavily from author Max Brooks's The Zombie Survival Guide. Columbus (Jesse Eisenberg) is a nerdy loner who discovers his instinctive distrust of other people and hours spent simulating post-apocalyptic situations in video games have given him a Darwinian advantage in a world overrun by zombies. While on a quest to find out if his family has survived the zombie plague, he teams up with Tallahassee (Woody Harrelson), a macho redneck with a serious craving for a Twinkie. On a side trip for the cream-filled snack, the two are duped by a pair of con artist sisters (Emma Stone and Abigail Breslin), who steal their truck and survival supplies. As there aren't many other humans around, Columbus and Tallahassee soon encounter the sisters again, and eventually the four decide to head to Los Angeles because, well, mainly... why not?
In purely comic terms, Fleischer uses the zom-com genre effectively, helped in no small part by Harrelson's gift-wrapped performance and a tongue-in-cheek cameo by a celebrity playing himself. (Do yourself a favor and avoid reading the cast list.) However, Fleischer could have created a more memorable film had he understood that zombie films at their best are magnifying glasses for society's flaws. Zombies, after all, are humans with all our negative qualities and none of our redeeming values (at least, not until later Romero films).
There are moments when Fleischer seems to grasp this. Although primarily a “road movie,” sets include a supermarket, an Indian gift store, the celebrity's mansion, and an amusement park. Already, the potential to make a salient point is there, and it's not entirely lost: Fleischer seems to conclude that we Americans only like to eat, buy stupid shit, and indulge in mindless entertainment. But rather than fill out its critique of our insatiable appetites in the grocery store or wasteful consumerism in the Indian store, the film gives into its own short attention span and swiftly glosses over them. Fleischer also employs a video game aesthetic throughout, which, coupled with its video game-addicted protagonist, could have been used to examine the hollowness of thrill-seeking masculinity in the age of internet. Instead, the film merely revels in it.
Fleischer makes the final misstep of trying to create a “human” movie out of a zombie flick, slipping into the banal and stereotypical. He uses his female characters to satisfy the delayed wish fulfillment of the male protagonists: for Columbus, Stone's character replaces the college crush who “got away” (or, more specifically, tried to eat him), while Tallahassee uses Breslin's Wichita to replace his dead son. Fleischer skirts this chauvinism by pretending the film is really about the value of trust and family. Unfortunately, Fleischer may be too much a part of the culture he is lampooning to create a more challenging critique.