Sunday, October 25, 2009

Movie Notes: Zombieland (2009)

Hostess Snack cakes presents: Zombieland!

Well, not really! But, if you've heard anything about this movie by now, you've probably heard that Woody Harrelson's character in the film is somewhat defined by his quest to find a Twinkie in a post-apocalyptic American zombie wasteland. That's a soft, spongy, delicious Twinkie © . So, when you tell your friends about the film, remember to mention the product "Twinkies" ©. And it is definitely a funny conceit; clearly Hostess got their money's worth on this film.

Zombies are generally pretty funny. They shamble like drunken sleepwalkers and eat people; plus you can beat them senseless without killing them- there's a lot of room for comedy there. In the old 1930s horror movies, there were sometimes voodoo-related zombies, but George Romero came up with the idea of a mystery disease that brings the dead back to life en masse, and it's worked well. But, even Romero went for laughs by the second zombie film he did, Dawn of the Dead. In the 80s, Return of the Living Dead and Night of the Creeps both featured zombies and jokes. And then you had the best of the zom-coms in my opinion, Shaun of the Dead.

Zombieland is pretty funny too, but the comic relief sort of kills the tempo of the movie in the middle section- which basically turns into yet another teenage pot comedy- and then picks back up for the end. The other problem is that the movie is so jokey that you never really believe the characters are in any danger or that there's really been an apocalyptic plague. Woody Harrelson's character reveals that he's lost his son about an hour in, and it's pretty much an insult to the audience because the character's been written as a freewheeling redneck who just wants a Twinkie up until this point, and now we're emotionally-manipulated for a minute- and, wait! now there's another joke! I know, I shouldn't "spoil" that reveal, but the scene is so shallow and disrespectful to the audience that it's hard not to. We watched the movie in a drive-in with three screens and, at this point, I started looking out the side window and watching the latest shitty Saw movie on the other screen.
In general, the brief "emotional" pause that's supposed to give a dumb movie some "depth" plays as insulting. Movies like Superbad and the works of Kevin Smith have sort of made it a staple to shoehorn cheap sentiment into hacky pot & sex comedies, also usually annoyingly. Hey, everybody! We've been screwing and smoking dope and farting for an hour! But, now, let's take time to reflect and hug! Yech. In this case, there's not just the dead kid who literally does not matter for more than three minutes of screen time, there's also a romatic subplot that causes Zombieland to switch gears yet again, to become a horror-adventure-comedy-drama-romantic-schmaltz-fest, and then back to a comedy. I can hear the pitch now: "It's like Night of the Living Dead meets Clerks meets Ghostbusters meets Sixteen Candles! Brought to you by Twinkies!"

And, you know, I didn't even really dislike this movie! Visually, it has a lot of imagination and energy. The jokes work, for the most part, and zombies are always entertaining to me. It's just that it could have been written- and probably was- by a fifteen year old with no life experience whatsoever trying to recreate all the cool things they saw in other movies. I'm guessing the main character, a nerdy shut-in with no life experience, is written from the heart.
Really, I think the film would have been great if they just lost the second act, in which the characters hang out with a mystery celebrity. The first act is well-paced and funny, in spite of the fact that its central recurring joke about the "rules" of surviving a zombie film is ripped off from both Max Brooks's Zombie Survival Guide and Scream. The second act is sort of funny, but in a really lazy way. And the third act, set in an amusement part overrun by zombies, is worth seeing the movie for. Because, really, when you watch these sorts of movies, you want to see a good number of zombies get shot.

In other words, I'd give Zombieland a B, or maybe a B-. It's funny and zombie movies are usually worth one viewing, but it's sort of stupid and nothing really special. And, seriously, Hollywood- stop with the damned product placements!

[Note: The frequent references to Twinkies should not be taken as an endorsement on my part. In my opinion, they make your mouth taste like you've just blown a gummi bear.]

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