A voice-over narration quickly informs the audience that Old Glory’s colors have faded. “This isn’t really America anymore,” we learn,”it’s the United States of Zombieland.”
Then, in the background, the noble dome of our Capitol is eclipsed. In the foreground…a ravenous, drooling zombie supersedes its prominence in the frame.
Meet the New World Order. The Zombies are in charge.
Arriving at the end of the first decade of the 21st century, Zombieland’s inaugural conjunction of image, sound and voice strikes a pitch-perfect note. After all, the turbulent epoch spanning 2000 – 2009 was brimming with zombie apocalypses in horror films (Dawn of the Dead, Land of the Dead, 28 Days Later, Diary of the Dead, etc.), so this movie has plenty to satirize in terms of running zombies and other recent genre tropes.
Much more importantly, the bitter decade just-ended was the era of Bush v. Gore, the 9/11 terrorist attacks, the Anthrax attacks, the Economic collapse and Recession, Swine Flu, Hurricane Katrina, and just about every other apocalypse any modern American could possibly imagine.
At the start of the zombie apocalypse, Columbus coped with the change by attempting to impose a sense of order on the chaos swirling around him. He developed a set of rules to handle every situation: #1: Cardio. #3: Beware of Bathrooms. #4: Seat belts. #7: Travel light. And so on. These rules represent his personal Bible of sorts.
During the course of the film, Columbus joins up with a gun-slinging cowboy, Tallahassee (Woody Harrelson), a sexy con-artist, Wichita (Amy Stone), and a twelve-year old girl, Little Rock, (Abigail Breslin). As this group (slowly) begins to form an ad hoc family, Columbus realizes that his rules can’t always save the day. Some rules were meant to be broken. And, in a family…well, you have to forgive and even accept the trespasses.
Again, thinking symbolically, it’s important to note that every character in Zombieland is named after a city in America. The city of Tallahassee is in Florida…the very state that handed Bush the White House in 2000. Wichita is in Kansas, so think, perhaps, of Thomas Frank’s What’s the Matter with Kansas, or the old Wizard of Oz quote “We’re not in Kansas anymore.” Columbus is in Ohio, the state that handed Bush the White House again in 2004. And Little Rock…well that’s in Arkansas; the home of Bill Clinton; the President who presided over the first era of 24-hour cable news cycles, Fox News, MSNBC, and the new national hyper-partisanship. Each one of these cities has a “problem;” just as in Zombieland, each character has a problem (or problems, plural).
George Romero has stated many times that what his zombie films are really about is the overturning and restructuring of society; or the overturning of old order and the establishment of new order. Zombieland also follows that template, albeit in a humorous fashion. In search of their “new” life, Columbus and his friends take a road trip and eventually smash the symbols of the old, zombified U.S.
When they stop at a roadside tourist trap, a place of kitschy, overpriced souvenirs (“We Wantum Your Wampum,”) we get a slow-motion dance of destruction, a montage cut to Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro. Consider that selection of music and the decision to destroy, in essence, a place of commerce and craven capitalism. As you may recall, The Marriage of Figaro was an opera (based on a play) from 1778 about a “day of madness,” and it was highly critical of aristocracy and nobility. In other words, it was critical of the established order…in much the same way as Zombieland is critical of the contemporary social order.
And then, in another important scene, Columbus himself (accidentally) kills the last living celebrity in America; a final, blazing punctuation to the age of glittering but empty star-worshiping and gossip-mongering that has consumed and distracted our culture while crises loom. Perez Hilton take note: it’s Twilight for Twilight.
In some way, Zombieland is a timely reminder of 2008’s optimistic “Yes We Can-ism” . If Wichita can learn to trust; if Columbus can form a social circle, overcome his fear of clowns, and become a hero, and if Tallahassee can learn to connect to other people after the death of his boy…what the hell are we waiting for on health care, on the environment, on reducing the deficit, or on national security?
Come on America, Nut Up or Shut Up.
To use an historical antecedent, Zombieland is to the 2000s what Dan O’Bannon’s Return of the Living Dead was to the Reagan 1980s. It’s a wolf in sheep’s clothing, a comedy that is actually a scathing commentary on our culture, right now. In particular, it seems to bemoan our cultural paralysis and inability to handle big problems. Is it funny? Hell, yes. I laughed out loud almost probably a dozen times during Zombieland. Is it emotional? Yep. The characters — for all their quirks — quickly grow on you. And the movie even succeeds in being scary because you do care about Columbus, Tallahassee, Wichita and Little Rock. The visuals are also punchy, dynamic, funny, and technically interesting (particularly in a “pop-up” approach to remembering Columbus’s all-important rules.)
In the end, Zombieland isn’t about a quest for the perfect twinkie. It’s about the quest to connect or re-connect with family, community and neighbors. Yes, we should remember rule #32 “Enjoy the little things,” but not at the expense of a re-written rule 17:
“Be a Hero.”