Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Family-Friendly Flesheaters I Have Known: This Year In Chaos

At the tail-end of my time at Solebury School, a high school that used to foster the kind of long-haired freaks you've probably seen running craft fairs or hackey sack games across the United States, I asked some friends of mine if they would like to listen to me talk about zombie films for a half hour or so a week. I'd call it a class and then complain when the school wouldn't officially recognize it. I was never a tremendously popular kid at my school (in fact some people would tell you alternately that they loathed and feared me before I graduated - not making that up by the way) but when seven kids showed up more than once to hear me tell them about White Zombie and why Night of the Living Dead was a cultural phenomenon I felt for the first time like I had a family away from my own. Since then I've kept the tradition alive here on this site which I named after that ill-fated class and also by having stragglers from the class and other sorted misfits over every now and again to watch something sordid. I'll never forget the horrified reactions to Revenge of the Living Dead Girls and Emanuelle and the Last Cannibals when I unleashed them on my unsuspecting friends (they've since come to suspect). Anyway, as I drift further and further from adolescence and I begin to see what and who is most important to me, I've come to view these nights of vicarious cinematic debauchery as more and more important. Not that I think this needs belaboring but I love Zombie movies; they're my livelihood, my bailiwick, my bread and butter, they bring meaning and comfort to my life, to quote Nathan Rabin, they feed my imaginary family. And I think it's been long enough since I covered an honest-to-god Zombie Movie. As even the most anti-genre cultural critics have observed, zombies have come back into favor since Danny Boyle's 28 Days Later. I couldn't be happier as not only does that mean that I've gotten at least one decent zombie film every year since then but that people are now taking the genre in new directions. If we look at the comedic zombie films alone there has impressive growth in what the sub-genre can comfortably support. Andrew Currie's Fido introduced a camp 50s sensibility, Edgar Wright's Shaun of the Dead brought British slacker comedy to the field and most recently Rueben Fleischer made a film that merges a Kevin Smith-type "whatever's bugging me lately" approach to comedy with a post-modern zombie movie. Though his movie suffers from first-time screenwriter's disease it's still endearing in a way I never thought my beloved zombie films could ever be; this may be the first film I've seen in theatres that I have waited patiently to show to my friends at one of my undead get togethers because it is a film made for just such people as ourselves.

by Ruben Fleischer
Open on the white house. It, and as we'll soon be informed the world, has been rendered meaningless and empty thanks to the zombie invasion. Before we get underway, can I just say that the slow-motion intro to Metallica's "For Whom The Bell Tolls" is fucking awesome. Anyway, our narrator and hero, to borrow another of Rabin's phrases, perpetual man-child Jesse Eisenberg (the other, other Michael Cera) has only survived it thanks to a list of rules. Stay fit, shoot twice, stay out of bathrooms, always wear a seatbelt, etc. He has dozens of the things in what I think is the first attempt at fusing quirky comedy (a la Wes Andersen and his many, many descendants) and horror. Anyway, our man is traveling from Austin, TX to Columbus, OH when he's picked up by a comic bad-ass played by Woody Harrelson who's on his way to Tallahassee, FL. He doesn't believe in connections so they'll just call each other by the names of their destinations. Columbus admires Tallahassee because he's a self-aware comic book character, a super-hero whose knowledge of his own arrogance doesn't prevent it from sticking around. Also, he enjoys the hell out of killing zombies. Columbus is all-too-happy to play "Sancho Panza" to his baseball bat-wielding Don Quixote.

While searching for a twinkie in a grocery store (Tallahasse's mission for much of the film is to find the last twinkie in the universe) they run afoul of Wichita and Little Rock, two sisters headed to Pacific Playland, a Californian theme park. Wichita is obviously going to be the romantic interest; first of all, Little Rock is played by a 13 year-old Abigail Breslin who will be filling the adorable side-kick quotient and second of all, Emma Stone is made-up like every college boy's dream - goth eye-liner, tight jeans and a fuck-you attitude. When the girls continually outsmart the boys and keep stealing their cars, they decide that instead of going round and round, they should join forces and head to Pacific Playland together. The reason Wichita wants to take her little sister there is because in all the chaos of surviving, Little Rock never got the chance to be be a kid - what better place to do that than a potentially zombie-free amusement park? So they head west and as they near the park their exteriors soften and they learn the importance of family.
I kinda sorta wish that last part wasn't true but all the same Zombieland is an utterly charming movie. I guess I should come clean now and admit that Zombieland isn't really much of a horror film, it's a quirky road comedy whose framing device happens to be the apocalypse. I can think of worse ideas to hinge a quirky comedy on but what surprises me is that despite the script being a collection of mostly unconnected bits it is still very effective and really quite funny. One of my favorite bits is a throw-away montage where the four leads take turns driving and commandeering the radio. Jesse Eisenberg's unmanly description of his shaving habits and Abigail Breslin explaining Hannah Montana to an incredulous Woody Harrelson don't really have anything to do with zombies but they are incredibly funny. I won't ruin the rest of the jokes for you because alot of them are really quite funny (the celebrity cameo which I also won't ruin sorta makes the movie, despite being a non-sequitur). The humour is specifically irreverent (apparently screenwriters Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick also hate the consistency of coconut) so while the writers enjoy reveling in Woody Harrelson lampooning his own tough guy persona and the violence he inflicts on the undead, they spend even more time spinning quickie gags. Take for example the rules by which Eisenberg's character lives by; early on Fleischer introduces a stylistic device in which the rules are superimposed over the action in silver lettering. It feels like it might get old but mostly retains its freshness simply because the script never abandons its quirkiness; then there's Eisenberg and Harrelson's rapport and the mostly muttered comments the former has for the latter. The movie is full of almost inaudible "that's adorables" and "charmings".

In fact if I had one complaint it's that there aren't enough zombies. Though the film's zombies and production values suggest Zach Snyder's Dawn of the Dead, a closer model might by Thom Eberhardt's Night of the Comets. The zombies serve the comedy like waiters at a restaurant. We get vague hints about why it happened: "Patient zero took a bite of a contaminated burger at a gas'n'gulp" but the zombies were really just paving for the story to drive over. For a film called Zombieland the movie is about 60% other stuff. During this time the zombies are mostly a peripheral element to introduce humour and get us thinking about the warm-and-fuzzy conclusion, which I guess to be fair isn't quite as bad as all that. Considering it comes after Woody Harrelson destroying a fried twinkie stand and as its delivered by Jesse Eisenberg, it can't be all that precious. Eisenberg makes for a trying hero at times and I feel like the movie would be better with maybe half of his near-constant voice-over. The only other thing that bothered me was that the soundtrack and a few of the gags date the movie. In ten years this movie will be as much a time capsule as a zombie film. The soundtrack (which I still kinda liked) is full of bands with success still fresh in everyone's mind to the point that their placement in the film smelled of market research; I can't imagine the Metric and Doves albums that the featured songs were taken from had been in stores for more than a week or two before being inserted in the movie during post-production.

But really its the sense of fun that pervades every second of Zombieland that won me over. Not only does Ruben Fleischer take his job as director of zombie killings seriously but he has the production values to back it up. His use of slow-motion is funny and intense, as is his toy stoere color scheme and the childish sense of wonder attached to each stop on the foursome's journey. And best of all his technical prowess overcomes the slackerish quality of the story, making it a sort of nerd's delight. It's the first movie I can think of that's clearly for, by, and about obsessive dorks. And that is probably why I came away from the movie brimming with good cheer. The movie finally embraces the kind of cult of good spirit that surrounds zombie film addicts. We are generally an affable bunch; I know that whenever I host a zombie movie watching party I do feel a sense of family with the freaks who congregate in my living room. Because then we're not freaks - the freaks are the normals out there who don't like eating vegan cake shaped like a severed head while watching Bare Behind Bars. What better way to find who to call when the zombies come then by seeing who most enjoys the films? I've recently come to see the importance of people who will sit down to watch whatever horrid film you've unearthed and can't wait to tuck into. Take note, readers, anyone who will sit through the works of Jean Rollin, Jesus Franco and Nagisa Oshima with you might just be your soulmate.
And though, like The Road, overt sentimentality isn't exactly what you want in a movie about the end of the world, it isn't unwelcome. This is a movie that celebrates the twitchy, OCD fanboys who come to zombie films in droves. Eisenberg is the nerd who lives (Harrelson his violent, snack-food loving inner child/idealized self), the audience surrogate, who in an equally implausible turn of events saves the day and gets the girl. What zombie loving nerd can't get behind that? Unlike another Harrelson-starred apocalypse film, 2012 (which makes a brief cameo in Zombieland), we have to care about the characters because they're us!  Sure, I'd have liked a little more ass-kicking and a more palpable sense of danger, but if you take out the heart of a zombie film, you wind up with Undead or Flesheater and for once the little zombie film that could had a major studio behind it. It was a victory all around as far as I'm concerned and I left Zombieland feeling great about life...then I told all my friends about it.

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