Zombieland

Jesse Eisenberg, left, and Woody Harrelson appear in a scene from "Zombieland."

Originally published on Oct. 2, 2009.

GREG'S GRADE: A

A movie titled "Zombieland" brings a certain set of expectations with it. There will be zombies — lots of 'em. There will be blood — lots of it. And there should be a healthy dose of campy humor. What you do not expect is character-based comedy and genuine human emotion.

We get all of that and more from "Zombieland," the debut feature by director Ruben Fleischer. As soon as the beautifully filmed, slow-motion opening title sequence set to Metallica's "For Whom the Bell Tolls" starts to roll, it's apparent that this is far from your run-of-the-mill, B-movie horror flick.

When the movie opens, the zombie apocalypse, caused by a virus, already has occurred. There are survivors, and two of them — obsessive-compulsive, cowardly, college-age Columbus (Jesse Eisenberg) and Tallahassee (Woody Harrelson), a free-wheeling cowboy-type for whom zombie-killing is a sport — meet on the road. They link up with the wily sisters Wichita (Emma Stone) and Little Rock (Abigail Breslin), and make for Pacific Playland, a Southern California amusement park rumored to be zombie-free.

That's as much plot as we get. The movie spends most of its time simply living with the characters on their road trip, showing us how they survive and interact with each other and occasionally flashing back to fill in the blanks with key character moments. It's reminiscent of "Dawn of the Dead" but with more laughs.

"Zombieland" took a circuitous route to the big screen, originally developed by screenwriters/executive producers Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick as a TV series. Its roots are evident, as the world and characters created feel like they could sustain many more stories.

Columbus is our guide through the movie, giving us his rules for survival in Zombieland (which appear in text on the screen when they are used) — cardio, beware of bathrooms, seat belts, don't be a hero and so on. Due to his shy, awkward persona, Eisenberg often draws comparisons to Michael Cera ("Superbad," "Juno"). But while Cera usually plays his social misfits with an ironic hipness, Eisenberg is entirely the straight man, giving Columbus not a hint of cool.

Harrelson, who aside from a small role in "No Country for Old Men" (2007) has kept a relatively low profile in recent years, makes an even bigger impression as the quotable, gun-slinging, Twinkie-loving Tallahassee. He has an outsized, commanding presence that steers just clear of becoming a caricature and a back story with surprising poignancy. With his cowboy hat, snakeskin jacket and guns blazing in the amusement park finale, Tallahassee transcends the movie to become an iconic figure. Though this year might be a little too soon, I expect Tallahassee to become a popular Halloween costume.

Eisenberg and Harrelson make for an odd couple, the clashing of their disparate comedic styles creating a unique rhythm. Stone and Breslin have smaller roles but hold their own. Little Rock trying to explain Hannah Montana to Tallahassee is comedy gold.

One more note on the acting front: I won't give away who it is, but a cameo by a big-name actor provides some of the biggest laughs.

And, of course, lots of zombies bite the big one in some of the most creative ways the movies have ever seen, especially when the rides are running at Pacific Playland.

"Zombieland" respects the lore of zombie movies past; in fact, with little exposition, it relies upon it heavily. Some fans might not like its use of fast-moving zombies a la the 2004 "Dawn of the Dead" remake instead of the shuffling undead of George Romero. Get over it. This movie isn't really about zombies anyway. It's a character piece cloaked in horror and action movie aesthetics, the best film of its kind since "Shaun of the Dead" (2004). "Zombieland" is an absolute blast.

Rated R for horror violence/gore and language. 88 minutes.

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