Over the past two decades, the zombie trope has become rather well-worn on both the big and small screens. Take, for example, the recent decline in quality (and viewing figures) of the once-mighty The Walking Dead, or the shrugging critical response which greeted the star-studded The Dead Don’t Die earlier this year.
Rewind 10 years, however, and horror fans will likely recall how director Ruben Fleischer, along with screenwriters Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick, managed to inject the zombie genre with an inventive dose of fun, self-awareness and gory, gory black humour with Zombieland. While still playing on our lingering fascination with the idea of humankind being wiped out by some undead-conjuring and cannibal-causing plague, Zombieland is still, even on the 10th anniversary of its UK release, arguably the most fun anyone can have with a zombie flick.
“Oh, America. I wish I could tell you that this was still America, but I’ve come to realise that you can’t have a country without people. And there are no people here,” Jesse Eisenberg’s bookish character Columbus grimly announces in Zombieland‘s opening monologue. “No, my friends. This is now the United States of Zombieland.”
How did the newly founded USZ come to be? Well, the explanation that’s provided is, naturally, quite silly: “patient zero” ate a bad burger and contracted mad cow disease, which quickly mutated and spread as “mad person disease” before becoming a globe-consuming “mad zombie disease”. The few survivors who wander the detritus of the USZ are therefore forever looking over their shoulder (or checking the back seat) in fear of being set upon by the movie’s quick, ravenous and quite intelligent brand of the undead. It’s here that we meet Columbus and the affable if manic Tallahassee, played to comedic perfection by Woody Harrelson. This double act soon becomes a quartet as scamming sibling duo Wichita and Little Rock (played by pre-La La Land Emma Stone and post-Little Miss Sunshine Abigail Breslin) join the fold, turning Zombieland into something of a dystopian road trip movie. The goal of said road trip? Honour Wichita’s promise to her sister of a visit to the apparently zombie-free Pacific Playland theme park in LA.
Powered by an adrenaline-fuelled soundtrack featuring the likes of Metallica, The Black Keys and The Raconteurs, Zombieland rarely lets up the tempo in delivering a shitload of meta gags and an unrelenting harvest of zombies. The two are conveniently tied together through Columbus’ actually quite sensible rules for surviving the zombie apocalypse — wear your seat belt, beware of bathrooms, limber up and, most crucially of all, double tap your enemies (translation: make sure they’re really dead) — which bring some light yet level-headed rational thinking to the watching experience. It’s the filmmakers’ way of telling you that, unlike much other zombie media, Zombieland won’t have you persistently yelling at the characters over their stupid mistakes and their subsequent failure to persevere in this blood-stained survival of the fittest.
And then, of course, there’s that Bill Murray cameo, which looked like a hell of a lot of fun to film. Within the space of barely 15 minutes, Murray gets hit by Stone with a golf club, smokes weed with Harrelson, and reenacts a scene from Ghostbusters. Unfortunately, he is then accidentally shot dead by Eisenberg, which is less fun. It’s all over very quickly, but remains a strong contender for the greatest movie cameo of all time.
Zombieland was a big box office success in 2009 and a long-awaited sequel, Double Tap, is out later this month. It’s set to reunite Tallahassee, Columbus, Wichita and Little Rock for what’ll probably be the last time. Even more impressive when you consider how they managed to persuade genuine Hollywood megastar Emma Stone to return.
Fans of the original will no doubt flock to their local multiplexes, but even if the sequel fails to elicit the same kind of delight, we’ll always have the original to fall back on. Our first visit to the United States of Zombieland: a whip-smart, gore-tastic and ultimately reinvigorating take on the currently staggering and stumbling zombie genre.
Zombieland: Double Tap is out in cinemas on October 18.