CULT MOVIE REVIEW: Zombieland (2009)

Ruben Fleischer’s genre comedy Zombieland opens to the familiar strains of Francis Scott Key’s The Star-Spangled Banner. Our stirring national anthem is then paired with the image of a small American flag dangling to the side; askew.

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.

It was a toxic time. Color-coded terror alerts, surgical masks in flu season, Terrorist Fist Bumps, Death Panels, Fox News…we’ve lived through it all.
At one point, our narrator in Zombieland also informs the audience — tongue not-so-much-in-cheek — that the zombie plague infecting those within our borders begins in a very specific fashion. By “making you hateful.
Well, that’s the only possible rational explanation for Tea Parties and Sarah Palin, isn’t it? A (Dick) Armey of Darkness.

Finally, in a very unique (and humorous) fashion, Zombieland even acknowledges and critiques how important and cherished “movie stars” have become in our modern, celebrity-driven pop culture.
Remember George Romero’s long-standing mantra? That the zombies are actually “us?” Applying that symbolism to Zombieland, the razor-sharp commentary of director Ruben Fleischer comes into clear focus. From its incipient imagery, Zombieland reveals modern America to be a land populated by seething, monstrous marauders; ones who have overturned the order of things as we know it. And the worst thing we can do, as responsible citizens of Zombieland, is to live by the edicts of selfishness, of simple personal survival…just looking out for ourselves as society spirals out-of-control.

Zombieland’s intrepid narrator and protagonist is named Columbus (after Columbus, Ohio), and he (Jesse Eisenberg) relates in detail (and in flashback) the routine of his life before the zombie apocalypse. An anti-social shut-in suffering from irritable bowel syndrome and chronic anxiety (not to mention OCD), Columbus spent his days in a bubble of technological isolation playing World of Warcraft, drinking Mountain Dew and ordering-in delivery pizza. In other words, Columbus was checked out…completely. He was unable, for some reason, to cope with our society as it was (and as it is, in real life.)

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.

Finally, Zombieland suggests that the key to rebuilding humanity comes in the willful shattering of Columbus’s rules. Be a hero. Do trust others. Take bold action. Otherwise, the movie seems to indicate, things just stay the same; Zombies friggin’ Everywhere (including the Capitol Dome). If someone doesn’t do something brave soon, we’re all just going to forever remain — in the explicit lingo of the movie — “orphans in Zombieland.”

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.”


10 responses to “CULT MOVIE REVIEW: Zombieland (2009)

  1. Wow! I enjoyed the movie but it really comes alive when I look back at it after your analysis. I'll add that the team's final destination, an amusement park not only pulls the themes you mention together (a "Carnival of Horrors" is how I would describe the vibe of the current moment) but also adds an echo of National Lampoon's Vacation which was an iconic representation of its own time in a similarly darkly comedic way.

  2. John Kenneth Muir

    DLR:"Carnival of Horrors" is a perfect descriptor for our political discourse today: it's a three-ring horror circus.I should have written about the road trip destination (an amusement park), so I'm glad you brought it up. It's funny and trenchant that you bring up the 1980s National Lampoon's Vacation movie too. I kept thinking about Wally World and how it fits in with Pacific Playland here. Kind of an empty quest. You ride a roller coaster, and then what?best,JKM

  3. This was one of my favorite films from 2009. And, you analysis of how it relates to the "Naughties" is superb. You drew out even more than I suspected with its story and conventions, JKM. It's an apt film for these times, too. Great review, John. Thanks for this.p.s., I thoroughly agree with DLR and you about the current political mayhem we're under, too.

  4. LeOpard13:Thank you for the kind words, my friend.Zombieland has turned out to be one of my favorite 2009 movies too (and it was a tough year — I also loved Moon, District 9, Knowing and others…). At first I thought Zombieland was going to be frivolous, and then I began thinking about the imagery and symbolism. It's actually a pretty great, pretty deep movie for our times. Right from that opening shot…Thanks for commenting!best,JKM

  5. Some things just didn't work for me in this film. For one, when they meet the women in the supermarket–one with zombies in it–the women seems to have been there a while completely unbothered by the zombies–or did I miss something. At Bill Murray's house, they shoot guns, play loud music, yet never close the gates to the property. Yet no zombies are beating at the window. Or did I MISS SOMETHING?Mateo

  6. Hey Mateo,Thanks for commenting.You know — I felt that the idea of Bill Murray's house being unbothered by zombies actually worked for the film; he's part of the "upper class" in the United States of Zombieland! :)Now, about the women in the grocery store (with two zombies), I would have to watch it again, but my memory of it is that the two zombies were in the store proper; the women in a different section (the back). Not entirely unlike zombies in the mall proper in Dawn of the Dead, but the humans in their locked house/"room."Best,JKM

  7. Great Write-up John, I knew you were gonna love this movie and your essay adds an extra dimension to it. The producers originally wanted to make it a TV series, can you imagine it???:-)

  8. I have to say I thought this was fairly awful. Except for Harrelson and a bit of Murray's cameo, the whole thing was never tonally together, and reminded me of a series of TV commercials featuring zombies. There wasn't an iota of human motivation in the film proper and by the end, I was wondering why the hell they were in an amusement park. I was no longer amused. This has nothin' on SHAUN OF THE DEAD.

  9. The New Beverly Cinema will be doing a reprise showing of ZOMBIELAND next week (this is the revival theater Quentin Tarantino saved from closing and now owns). I get their weekly email newsletter. They included this with its listing:"This isn't just a good zombie comedy. It's a damn fine movie, period." – Richard Corliss, Time MagazineI have this on disc, but I might take it in again at the theater. Thanks.

  10. LeOpard13:Thanks for the info! I would love to see it again on the big screen too…best,JKM

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