Zombie are blessed with a name that begins with one of the funniest letters of the alphabet. As a result, these legendary flesh eaters are particularly versatile, capable of stirring feelings of horror (as in Night of the Living Dead) and hilarity (as in the recent literary mash-up Pride and Prejudice and Zombies). Zombieland takes full advantage of both possibilities of the species as well as the current boom in zombiephilia. The ghouls who, after an out-of-control virus hits planet Earth, have overrun the world in this smartly made, chat-loving comedy are plenty hideous, prone to feasting on intestines. But they're mostly fake-blood-splattered interlopers, dispatched with Shaun of the Dead sangfroid. At the bone, Zombieland is a polished, very funny road picture shaped by wisenheimer cable-TV sensibilities and starring four likable actors, each with an influential following.
Actually, each courts a strip of America, too, since the characters survivors who understandably approach one another with suspicion before joining forces (maybe they've seen 28 Days Later?) are known only by geographic handles. Adventureland's Jesse Eisenberg, a matinee idol for girls who love adorably neurotic guy-in-hoodie types, is called Columbus, because he's trying to get home to his mom and dad in Ohio without being eaten. Columbus narrates, providing the audience with a running list of rules (helpfully printed on the screen) by which he manages to stay alive. Woody Harrelson is Tallahassee, a mad-eyed daredevil filled with zombie hatred, whose most pronounced quirk is an obsessive quest to stock up on Twinkies as road food. (Sure, Twinkies are funny by definition, but the postapocalyptic-foodstuff joke was handled more succinctly in WALL·E.) Superbad's Emma Stone, deliciously punk-sexy in smoky eye shadow, is called Wichita, while a feisty Abigail Breslin plays Wichita's kid sister, Little Rock, a 13-year-old who's young enough to love roller coasters yet old enough to handle a firearm. One additional benefit of a postzombie landscape is that, with no other human drivers on the road, Little Rock can shoulder her share of time behind the wheel.
So where does this quartet of charmers head? Why, west to Southern California, of course! It's a destination that's rumored, against all ha-ha cultural stereotypes, to be a zombie-free zone. (Unspoken joke: How can you distinguish the living dead from movie stars?) Besides, Little Rock has an itch to see a particular SoCal amusement park, and the itinerary leaves time for the foursome to tour the celebrity homes of Beverly Hills. Ravenous hordes won't get me to say anything about the cameo player who makes an appearance in the film except this: Bloody great! Also this: There's an excellent joke at Russell Crowe's expense.
Zombieland, which feasts on snarky banter and self-referential pop cultural allusions (including shout-outs to Facebook and various movies handpicked for maximum audience appreciation), was written by young talents Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick, script partners who have clocked time creating and writing shows for Spike and MTV. The debut feature director is Ruben Fleischer. As a result, I'm guessing that seasoned producer Gavin Polone, whose credits include Gilmore Girls and Curb Your Enthusiasm, is equally important in balancing this entertainment equation. Reese, Wernick, and Fleischer are occasionally in danger of wandering off into flights of indie-narrative cuteness (Columbus' rules of survival begin to lose their freshness midway through the story). I'll wager it's Polone who kept the picture focused on the four central characters and their own journey from zombies—i.e., lone souls wandering the earth—to humans who bond with one another because, frankly, nobody else has even got a heartbeat. B+