There is a venerable genre building up quite a reputation over the years, that of the horror comedy. The beauty of the genre is that there is so much freedom within it. You get all the varieties of comedy and all the varieties of horror, and these can be mixed together to create an almost endless variety of approaches. Thus you can have the cleverness of a Sean of the Dead or the more frightening approach of An American Werewolf in London - which are probably two of the finest examples within the genre. You can even add sex into the mix (Zombie Strippers, Lesbian Vampire Killers) or add a surprising amount of subtlety as in Doghouse. Whatever approach you try to take, surely this must be one of the easiest of genres to keep fresh - to add a new twist to.
Things start off most promisingly in Zombieland. An excellent credit sequences segues into an introduction which contains no ambiguity at all about what has happened and how the world got into this mess. Humans have been turned into Zombies by a virus which mutated from a bad Burger. Columbus (Jesse Eisenberg) is a teenage nerd who has survived against the odds in this new world, thanks to his rules for survival. These rules are introduced to us at the beginning of the film in a very clever and dynamic way, the writing of the rules appearing on the scenery and interacting with the protagonists. Very soon, Columbus ends up linking up with Tallahasse, an unhinged borderline-psycopath (Woody Harrelson) and the unlikely duo team up in their search for a mythical part of America which is Zombie free.
The relationship between the two provides a lot of comedy, particularly from the laconic dialogue coming from Tallahasse. The alacrity with which he takes to zombie dispatching can be particularly enjoyable - a scene in a shopping mall with a sliding finish is particularly well staged. But just when the film is settling into a comfortable routine, two young women Wichita (Emma Stone) and Little Rock (Abigail Breslin) turn up on the scene and prove to be not exactly what they seem. However, it is no great surprise to find that they eventually hook up with our two mismatched heroes and they continue their journey to the mythical zombie free location, meeting up with a surprising person along the way (don't look on iMDB if you don't want to spoil this key scene).
As a film, Zombieland is very much a curate's egg that has some illustrious forebears to live up to. It certainly makes a brave attempt to do this but sadly, ultimately fails. But despite this it's like the slightly embarrassing cousin who always comes to the family party. He is always invited out of a sense of duty, and no-one really wants him there, but once he is he provides plenty of amusement and you can't help but like him. The main characters are engaging and well portrayed by the actors, with Woody Harrelson in particular relishing the opportunity to chew up the scenery and portray a character who isn't that far removed from Mickey in Natural Born Killers. He brings a lightness of touch to the role which means that his character, although borderline psychopathic, still manages to be funny. This is not an easy trick to pull off. Jesse Eisenberg is less successful with his role. His character starts off geeky and unlikeable, which he manages well - but throughout the film it is essential that you start to get under the geeky surface to find the more likeable character to emerge. This is what the script wants us to do, but Eisenberg never manages to show us this side of the character and his portrayal remains rather one-dimensional. The two girls are both excellent, with Breslin in particular showing a surprising range, and playing a character far removed from her previous roles. She proves herself to be a talent to watch.
The major problem with the film, however, is that it is a concept in search of an execution. Whereas the basic idea is fine, the screenwriters and director don't seem to have the ideas to stretch it out to a full movie. The beginning scenes are fantastic - they are vibrant, clever, well-mounted, and imaginative. The pace is electric, with each scene lasting the perfect amount of time - and the editing is snappy and clever. The problem is, however, once the four main protagonists are united it seems like everyone ran out of ideas of where to go next. They therefore introduce a brief celebrity cameo which manages to be almost nauseating, and then proceed to a final showdown which manages to be leaden and un-exciting. To cap all this, the ending takes schmaltz to a whole new level, applying a “Hollywood” happy ending to a film where it is patently not needed. The result is anachronistic in the extreme.
The result of all this is that a film that is only 86 minutes long manages the cardinal sin of feeling much longer. The pace seems to slow consistently throughout the film until the stage when you feel that the film-makers are just putting scenes in to stretch the running time. This is even more disappointing as the first part of the film does show such amazing promise. The other fatal flaw in the film is that the zombies simply aren't frightening. Apart from a very few scenes, the only time we see them chowing down it is on the already dead. There are very few scenes when they are actually ripping apart the living. There is one notable scene where a zombie with a broken ankle is chasing someone, which is wince-inducing, but these scenes are too few and far between.
As a comedy, it very rarely made me laugh. The script is not one that is designed for laughs, there is precious little clever dialogue or witty one-liners. The comedy tends to come from the actions on screen and the character's reactions to them - and whilst this can be amusing, it very rarely makes one laugh out loud.
So, is it worth taking a trip to Zombieland? Well, on the balance of it I would say just about yes, but it is probably the most difficult call I have had to make since writing reviews on this site. There is plenty to like about the film, and plenty to admire, but I have rarely seen a film which manages to follow such a downwards trajectory. It will certainly pass a Saturday evening if you have not seen it before, but I do have my doubts about the re-watch value. For this reason alone, it may well be that a rental may be in order.