Saturday, November 27, 2010


Why this fascination with zombies? I suppose it could be an aspect of the adolescent mind, because adolescent males from 12 to 25 are a prime audience for zombie films. But the appeal of zombies is wider than that. This nightmarish fear that some biological or supernatural disaster could cause those we love and depend on most either to die horribly or to be transformed into ravening beings who want to kill and eat us suggests a fundamental anxiety about the stability of human institutions, about the stability of how we live, about reality. It suggests fear of losing control, of illness and death, of unexpected violence, of being overwhelmed by events wholly out of our power. Most of all it reflects a profound and existential distrust of human nature and of the stability of contemporary life, a suspicion if not certainty that sooner or later those we love and trust most will turn on us darkly and rip out our throats.

One of my childhood fears was that one morning I would wake up to discover that my entire life—everything I knew, my parents and friends—was a dream, and in their place I was left in an entirely new and horrific reality. This I suppose is one reason for my dislike of zombies.

I don’t understand why every film about a global epidemic generally involves a virus that, instead of killing its victims, turns them into zombies. Why zombies? But Zombieland (2009; dir. Ruben Fleischer) I liked. The zombies are a secondary nuisance. They bite you and infect you with the zombie virus. Or they eat you. But the film’s real interests lie elsewhere.

Zombieland is like an amusement park, a video game. Amusement parks, like the one at the end of this film, constitute a kind of picaresque narrative, a loosely connected series of rides, or episodes. You walk from one ride to another and then the day is done and you depart. Video games are structured in the same way, except that in many cases you don’t leave the park--you ascend to a higher level. Zombieland is built this way—we move from one encounter with zombies to another, and then, after successfully surmounting the obstacles of the amusement park, we move off for further adventures, outside (of course) the province of this film.

Zombieland makes no pretenses—it doesn’t take the zombies or the disaster that has befallen humankind or anything else seriously. It moves fast. It has its moments of melancholia, of humor, but mostly they’re subsumed in one character’s search for a Twinkie or in another’s hope of finding his family.

A great and ironic sense of humor runs throughout the film. The four main characters are named for American cities: Columbus, Tallahassee, Little Rock, and Wichita. Columbus (Jesse Eisenberg) has made up a list of rules that he follows in order to avoid the zombies. He’s constantly adding to them. When a girl who has been pursued by zombies takes refuge in his apartment, he thinks that at last he is going to lose his virginity, but then she turns into a zombie like everyone else. Tough luck.

The highlight of the film comes when the characters make their way to Hollywood and the mansion of the actor Bill Murray. They assume he’s dead. Two characters go into his viewing room to watch Ghostbusters. And then the zombie Bill Murray appears. Except that he’s not what he seems. This is the postmodern, metafictional touch—a film about zombies in which real people appear—a film in which Bill Murray plays himself--the disconnect between the real and the imagined softens, becomes indistinct.

Zombieland lacks the vision and sense of space of I am Legend (2007), with its eerily deserted New York City, and the tragically alone figure of Robert Neville played by Will Smith. It lacks the hopeless horror of 28 Days (2000) and 28 Days Later (2002). Or the gross stupidity of the zombies in George Romero’s films (no, I am not a fan). But what it does have is humor, suspense and tension, funny and whacky characters, and surprising turns of plot. It’s all good fun. That is, as long as you don’t mind the zombies. (They still want to eat your brains).

Woody Harrelson is great in this film.

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