I used to wonder about the appeal of zombie movies. Unlike werewolves or vampires, zombies have no interesting characteristics or power. They’re generally slow, dumb, and utterly lacking in personality. Why are they scary? My initial conclusion – and I think it still holds for older zombie movies – is that we fear zombies because we fear death. Zombies, like death, are nothing if not persistent. Their utter lack of other powers are compensated by one fact; they just keep coming. They may be slow, and stupid, but eventually, they’ll get you.
Lately, though, zombies in movies have changed, and come to symbolize something else: ubiquity. The zombies in “Dawn of the Dead” and all its sequels and spoofs, as well as in the new flick “Zombieland,” aren’t all that slow or dumb. Now the difference between zombies and werewolves are that, while there’s usually only one werewolf or vampire in a film, zombies are everywhere. The heroes are a minority in a world filled with flesh-eating, dead-eyed stumblers.
In “Dawn of the Dead,” this is clearly a comment on modern society – who of us doesn’t, at times, feel like we’re trying stay alive in a world full of soulless carnivores? That theme has been played and riffed on and inverted endlessly. “Zombieland hits those notes but takes it in a slightly different direction. If you are the only living person on the planet, then well… the world is your oyster. Do what you will. Who’s going to stop you? Who’s even going to care?
Jesse Eisenberg survives in the zombie world because he was a zombie in the real world – a shutin, plagued with phobias and maybe a touch of OCD. When the world is overtaken by a virus that turns friends and family and coworkers into mindless freaks, avoiding people and being anal retentive become survival techniques. He teams up with Woody Harrelson, who has survived because he’s really good at killing things. He likes it. He’s more suited for Zombieland than for the real world. I know some people like him. They scare me.
Harrelson teaches Eisenberg to “enjoy the little things,” like smashing up a souvenir shop and searching for Twinkies in burned out grocery stores. The two get conned by Emma Stone and Abigail Breslin, a sister act grifter team on their way to Disneyland (by a non-copyrighted name) and end up travelling with them. The point being, if your journeying through a world filled with the living dead, you can at least enjoy the ride(s). And the lines will be short.
Along the way, they stop in Beverly Hills and sleep in Bill Murray’s mansion, because this is exactly the kind of thing you can only do if pretty much everyone in the world is dead or undead. Except that Murray’s not dead, just pretending to be – which makes this the third, or possibly the fourth, movie in which he’s been a zombie. Weird career choice, Bill. Still, he’s a good host, until he plays a practical joke they all wish they could take back.
I was a little surprised – and disappointed – with how little zombie-killing there is in Zombieland. A big chunk in the middle feels much more like odd-couple road-trip fare, as the four swap philosophies and stories, and the two close in age begin their courtship rituals. “Zombieland” wants to make a point about loners making human connections and finding family and friends in spite of the odds, but the truth is, its best parts are the gleefully destructive, cartoonishly violent bits, not the talking and kissing and crying and confessing.
Which brings up another reason why we like zombie movies – they can be as violent as they want without ever being disturbing. Because zombies aren’t human (but look vaguely human,) don’t have motivations, and shouldn’t ever, ever be given a second chance, Woody Harrelson can kill them as creatively as he wants, and we laugh. If he took lawn shears to a vampire, or a terrorist, we might have to cringe.
- if you like “Dawn of the Dead,” “Drag Me to Hell,” etc, and understand the concept of “horror-comedy.”
- if you’re enjoying this recent resurgence of horror movies with a heart.
- if you prefer the “comedy” half of horror-comedy.
- if you prefer the “horror” part of horror-comedy. There really aren’t any scares in Zombieland.
- if you don’t like zombie movies at all (obviously.)