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Nearly scared off

Were they to exist, zombies would be hard to ignore. Scripts about these flesh-eating creatures are real, though, and it seems they’re easier to push aside. Especially if you’re an actor who does his best to ignore such movies.

“The one genre I don’t watch is horror,” says Woody Harrelson. “I get nightmares. For some reason, it really scares me.”

Just to get the Oscar-nominated actor to read the script to “Zombieland,” the title of which could lead any star to believe humans were secondary, was a chore for his agent. “I was like, ‘Zombies, dude? Really?’ ” Harrelson says. “Then, finally, I read it and thought it was just phenomenal. [They’re] more of a backdrop that brings all these characters together.”

Opening Friday, the post-apocalyptic “Zombieland” has its share of splatter-rich mayhem and raving paragons of anatomical decay filmed in loving slow-motion. But at its heart, it’s a personality-driven action comedy in which Harrelson’s daring, quick-trigger character, Tallahassee -- a tough guy whose sense of loss drives him to daredevil zombie-destroying -- reluctantly teams up with a nervous young man known as Columbus (“Adventureland” star Jesse Eisenberg), who staves off fear (and survives) by adhering to his personal set of undead-avoidance rules.

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Like Harrelson, Eisenberg -- normally drawn to such movies as “The Squid and the Whale,” where emotions, as opposed to cannibalistic renderings, induce squirms -- had to be prodded into reading Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick’s screenplay. He then discovered something more shocking than the de rigueur violence. “I realized this was better than most independent dramas I had at the time,” says Eisenberg, “and had more authentic and well-rounded characters than many movies that focus only on characters. The movie can sustain itself without having to scare people.”

First-time director Ruben Fleischer took pains to assure his cast -- which also includes Emma Stone and Abigail Breslin as a pair of survival-shrewd sisters -- that crunchy gore, terror, laughs and human beings could commingle effectively. “Because you invest in the characters, that’s why we’re able to go in all these directions,” says Fleischer, who believes “Zombieland,” which follows its protagonists as they make their way across the country to a West Coast amusement park, is closer in tone and spirit to strangers-on-a-road-trip movies such as “Planes, Trains & Automobiles” and “Midnight Run” than sustained-mood chillers like the original zombie masterpiece, George Romero’s “Night of the Living Dead.” “The buddy-comedy aspect is what excited me about it. It’s the classic odd couple, the brains and the brawn.”

Encouraged to improvise for many of the conversational scenes, the actors would often reach the point of trying anything to make each other laugh. Eisenberg hails Harrelson’s ability to ignore others’ lapses in concentration. “I’ve never seen anybody like him,” says Eisenberg. “Somebody would start laughing, and he would just stare in character, offended. He never broke, ever.”

If vampires have enjoyed a resurgence in pop culture that nonetheless adheres to well- established aesthetics of doomed romance, zombies have seen their metaphorical and genre-bending fortunes flourish since Romero’s socially conscious, judiciously amusing fright feasts. From “Dawn of the Dead” wringing pointed satire from connecting zombies to mall culture to Peter Jackson’s hilariously over-the-top extravaganza of blood, guts and squishiness “Dead Alive,” and recently the comedy-first, carnage-second ethos of the beloved British sendup “Shaun of the Dead,” something about tearing into a zombie story easily exposes a funny bone.

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“I guess there’s no sincerity to the zombie,” Eisenberg proffers. “It’s your friend chasing you around a playground, spitting at you. Zombies behave like dumb people. They just happen to be infected by this horrible virus. But it lends itself to idiot humor. The other thing is, you don’t care about killing them. They’re dead in the first place, so there’s no pathos connected to slaughtering them.”

Rather, the extreme situation involved lends itself to laughing at it, Harrelson adds. “That juxtaposition of fear and impending disaster makes the comedy work better,” he says.

That said, Eisenberg and Harrelson are such newbies to zombie lore that until doing press recently they hadn’t been terribly aware of the “fast versus slow” debate raging among genre aficionados. Namely, should these reanimated corpses lumber catatonically, albeit unceasingly, which was Romero’s homage to the dread-laced creep of 1930s Universal monster flicks and which, let’s face it, fits with how we all use the term “zombie” to describe our sluggish, caffeine-deprived morning selves. Or should zombies sprint like jacked-up relay racers, as in Danny Boyle’s “28 Days Later” and Zack Snyder’s “Dawn of the Dead” remake? “If they’re fast, they’re more threatening, so that’s better,” says Harrelson, before qualifying his stance with a defensively vague, “Whatever helps bring the story along.”

Fleischer’s movie seems to straddle the two, featuring flesh-chompers of varying speeds. “I wanted them to be fast. The problem was we had $100-a-day extras who weren’t all stunt people, and it was very cold and very late in that amusement park. So if they occasionally hobble, that’s OK.”

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What will surely be talked about most, though, is the well-timed celebrity cameo that excites everyone associated with “Zombieland,” a last-minute addition that saved the day after an originally cast big-name dropped out. “It was just supposed to be a zombie part, no lines,” says Harrelson of the stunt-casting role, written initially to be a recognizably famous Beverly Hills mansion dweller, and kept intentionally vague here to avoid spoiling it. “And if they didn’t get someone by a certain time, they were going to make it a nondescript old Jewish couple.”

Harrelson discovered that an A-lister friend was filming nearby and, after leaving a cellphone message, got a callback. With some frantic reworking of the part to sell the idea, a one-day shoot was secured.

Recalls Fleischer, “Toward the end of their conversation, Woody put it on speakerphone, and after this actor said, ‘OK, see you tomorrow,’ he hung up and we all cheered. It was incredible. And now it ends up being the most memorable part of the film.”

Reaction so far has been positive for all of “Zombieland,” though. A recent Orange County screening, Harrelson says, was “like being at a rock concert. I’ve never been in a movie where people have responded like that. Never.”

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So he didn’t have a problem watching his own zombie flick?

“Oh, no,” he says. “I was just laughing the whole time.”

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calendar@latimes.com

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