Buried deep within the grim worlds of most zombie movies lies an unlikely streak of wish-fulfillment. Granted, a zombie-ruled hellscape offers plenty of disadvantages to the living, but it also includes the giddy promise of a world where the rules have been thrown out the window, and survivors can treat abandoned stores, amusement parks, and homes like their own private treasure chests—assuming, of course, that they don’t get eaten in the process. The winning new road movie/horror-comedy Zombieland runs with this conceit, most gloriously during an extended sequence featuring a mystery guest star indulging in hilarious self-parody.
Jesse Eisenberg stars as a meek young man whose preternatural cautiousness allowed him to survive a zombie apocalypse that wiped out most of humanity. Eisenberg goes it alone until he runs into a gun-toting, Twinkies-obsessed roughneck (Woody Harrelson) whose badass exterior belies a sentimental side. These unlikely zombie hunters join forces with a sister-act pair of small-time grifters (Emma Stone and Abigail Breslin) and head to a southern California amusement park, where hideous ghouls may eat their brains, but at least they won’t have to wait in line for rides. (Anyone who has spent time at Disneyland knows that’s a fair trade-off.)
Zombieland leans heavily on the comedy side of the horror-comedy equation. For a zombie movie, it’s largely devoid of suspense and scares; instead, it focuses on the comic possibilities of four misfits indulging their most cherished fantasies under the bleakest circumstances imaginable. Though Eisenberg’s excessive voiceover narration bogs down the first act, the film quickly evolves into a crackling zombie romp powered by a clever script, goofy physical comedy—the filmmakers get a lot of mileage out of Harrelson’s amusingly over-the-top means of dispatching the undead—and the yin-yang comic chemistry of the eternally adorable Eisenberg and good-ol’-boy Harrelson. The four protagonists aren’t about to let something as minor as the complete breakdown of society get in the way of having a good time, and their fun proves infectious.