Last night I finally saw Zombieland. It is delightful. Four stars.
At first glance, Zombieland is a road movie about a college student who joins up with an unlikely band of survivors while on a quest to find his parents (during–need I even say it?–a zombie apocalypse). One of these survivors is played by Woody Harrelson, who all but steals the show as a violence-prone, Twinkie-crazed Floridian. (Question: Has an actor in a zombie film ever been nominated for Best Supporting Actor at the Oscars? Because I feel like Harrelson has a legitimate shot with this. He is outstanding.) Emma Stone from Superbad also plays a love-interest quite ably.
The zombie-killing is funny, gory, and masterfully rendered. There are lots of big guns and shoot-em-up sequences. Zombies are also attacked by cars, carnival rides, pianos, and more. The zombies themselves are fast-moving, and look pretty cool. For all the gore, the film never forgets it is a horror-comedy. Again, Harrelson is show-stealingly hilarious, and so is a much-lauded cameo from an A-list actor (which I won’t reveal).
And yet there is something more here. Zombieland is also a great film because it works on deeper levels…
In his 1941 review of Citizen Kane, Jorge Luis Borges argued that a great film must present an audience with both an engaging simple narrative and a deep metaphysical question. (In the case of Citizen Kane: Simple Narrative = C. F. Kane is the richest man in America but still sad because money can’t buy you happiness. Metaphysical Question = Is it possible to know what a man was really like in life based on what is left after he is dead?)
So wait… Am I about to compare Zombieland… to Citizen fricking Kane?!?
Yes. I. Am.
Though shorter and less ambitious than Welles’ work, Zombieland nonetheless plumbs the depths of difficult (and perhaps unanswerable) questions about friends, family, and self. There’s no doubt that it has a blood-drenched, funny, fast-moving storyline. (Simple Narrative = Strangers become friends as they help one another navigate a world of the undead, because, gosh, deep-down we all need each other.) Yet on a deeper lever, Zombieland is about the atavistic need to redefine oneself after a tragedy has stripped the things that used to do that. (Metaphysical Question = When the world takes away my blood-family and the things from which I derived my identity, can I still find things and people that will help define “me” as me?)
Final Thought: In her cursory and unbelievably self-indulgent review in the New York Times (“What’s that? Zombies make you think of dead bodies, which makes you think of the Holocaust, which makes you feel sad? Boo hoo. And also: You missed the point!!! [As Harrelson’s character would say: ‘Nut up or shut up!’]”), Manohla Dargis faults Zombieland for failing to touch on “politics” in the manner of a George Romero zombie film.
I would counter that she is correct. Zombieland does not touch on politics. It touches on things that are even more important and vital.