A zombie plague has transformed the world into a cannibalistic hellscape. Into a small Texas town steps a skinny, quivering nebbish with a shotgun: “I know it looks like zombies destroyed it, but that’s just Garland,” he tells us via nerdy narration. “I may be an unlikely survivor, with all my phobias and my irritable-bowel syndrome. . . . “
But he has survived, in large part because of his adherence to such rules as “Double tap” (make sure that undead thing is really dead), “Don’t be a hero” and “Beware of bathrooms.” This wayward college student soon to be nicknamed Columbus (Jesse Eisenberg) eventually hooks up with other survivors on a cross-country trek to a Disneyland-like amusement park that promises to be monster-free, stopping along the way in an even more mythical place: Beverly Hills.
Clearly, the horror-comedy “Zombieland” is not your average gore-nucopia. There are plenty of exploding heads, sure, but while there are a number of gross-outs and jolts in it, “Zombieland” is mostly about character-based laughs.
Eisenberg (“The Squid and the Whale”) does his wimpy shtick -- imagine a young Woody Allen fumbling for a shotgun and blowing ghoulish heads off. Emma Stone (“The House Bunny”) is saucy as a hard-bitten survivor, and Abigail Breslin (“Little Miss Sunshine”) is killer-cute as her rifle-toting little sister. Even the ubiquitous Amber Heard shows up (and doubtless has more fun here than in the creatively zombified “The Informers”), and there’s an excellent surprise appearance that makes up for a long mayhem-less stretch.
But no one looks to be enjoying the ride more than Woody Harrelson as Tallahassee, a zombie slayer with a Twinkie fetish. If the undead dreamed, he’d be their worst nightmare. In a role that seems written for him, Harrelson clearly delights in finding creatively brutal methods of dispatching the monsters. And it’s just plain fun to see him do it.
The crack cast gets plenty to chew on in Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick’s genre-savvy script. In a tasty spin on the annoying romantic-comedy conceit of rules of engagement, we are occasionally reminded of Columbus’ tenets of survival as they come into practical usage -- a cinematic “I told you so.” The meta-ness of the movie is embodied by Columbus’ explanation that a crazy plan was Tallahassee’s, not his: “I’m just kind of like a Sancho Panza character.”
First-time feature director Ruben Fleischer brings impeccable timing and bloodthirsty wit to the proceedings. Cinematographer Michael Bonvillain captures some interesting images amid the post-apocalyptic carnival of carnage, as when he transforms the destruction of a souvenir shop into a rough ballet. There are even a few poignant moments in the movie, but they don’t get in the way of the funny, violent, zombie-killing good time.
MPAA rating: R for horror violence/gore and language
Running time: 1 hour, 27 minutes
Playing: In general release