Sunday, October 4, 2009

The pleasures of massacring zombies: notes on Zombieland

1) I think films like Zombieland appeal to us because modern life has become too cluttered and constrained, too full of words, people, laws, the past, schedules, property, corporations, household appliances, work, commutes, and traffic regulations. Wouldn't it be nice to imagine a 28 Days Later scenario when most fellow humans have been reduced to snarling, drooling infected zombies due to a disease stemming from tainted hamburger? Wouldn't it then be fun to stock up on guns and wander around the car-cluttered freeways, the detritus of old strip malls and grocery stores, and shoot zombies as needed? Aside from the obvious downsides, wouldn't such an apocalypse be tremendously liberating?

Thus does Columbus (Jesse Eisenberg) seem to have fun as he struggles to survive. He lives by a list of rules, which includes:

1) Cardio (needed for running from zombies).

2) Doubletap (one bullet to the head may not suffice. Shoot twice for greater safety).

3) Beware of bathrooms (because you can be relatively defenseless on the john).

4) Seatbelts (in case you need to crash your vehicle to send a zombie through the windshield).

6) Cast iron skillet (one of several weapons including a banjo, a bowling ball, and hedge clippers that work well for zombie killing).

14) Limber up (for battle. Tallahasee (Woody Harrelson) does not think this rule is needed, by the way).

17) Don't be a hero.

31) Check the backseat.

32) Enjoy the little things (such as using one's car door to brain a zombie when driving by).

One day Columbus happens upon Tallahasee on the freeway. They contemplate shooting each other in a Mexican stand-off, but then Columbus sticks out his thumb, and Tallahasee reluctantly agrees to drive him to Columbus, Ohio (characters use place names in this movie to avoid getting too attached to each other). Since there are precious few uninfected humans around, Columbus and Tallahasee can drink whiskey and drive, not wear their seatbelts, let off steam by smashing vans, and hunt for the ever elusive Twinkie (the film's one massive product placement). Tallahasee specializes in zombie killing, but he has no desires for anything aside from a Twinkie--a good thing since there are no female love interests in the plot for him.
Instead, two confidence girls--Wichita (Emma Stone) and 12-year old Little Rock (Abigail Breslin) happen upon our heroes in a grocery store. As they all eventually band together and seek an amusement park out west, I kept being reminded of Breslin's break-out role in Little Miss Sunshine (2006), where she and her highly dysfunctional family seek a junior miss beauty pageant in a yellow VW bus. In Zombieland, the gang also drive a large yellow vehicle--this time a Hummer.

2) While watching the movie, you can enjoy the Van Halen music, the free-for-all pleasures of slaughtering zombies with impunity, and director Ruben Fleisher's slow motion zombie attack action scenes reminiscent of Timur Bekmambetov's work in Wanted (2oo8), but do not look for much plausibility. I found myself wondering about:

a) Why would a large grocery store have electricity? The zombie outbreak took place recently, within the past several months or weeks, but are some of the few remaining humans running the local power plant? Why does the amusement park have electricity? Could it be because the film would lack enough light without it?

b) How can our merry band of zombie killers drive from the Midwest to Los Angeles without being stopped by abandoned cars on the freeway? They seem to make the journey in one night.

c) For that matter, where is the gas for this road trip coming from?

d) Why is Emma Stone's character Wichita wearing eyeliner? The girls talk of desiring a shower, but no one ever appears to need one.

e) Later on, we learn that Tallahassee greatly misses his son, who died young. Tallahassee cries in front of the gang, and admits that he "hasn't cried like that since Titanic." Good thing he's such a cuddly, lovable killing machine.

3) The makers of Zombieland love to make allusions to other films, including Psycho (when Columbus tries to stop a female zombie with a shower curtain), Babe (when Tallahasee says "That'll do, pig"), and even Adventureland (which features Jesse Eisenberg once again trying to impress a woman in an amusement park). The film is loosely designed like so many summer blockbusters as a kind of carnival ride (Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom comes to mind). The film (spoiler alert) ends at an actual carnival in Los Angeles called Pacific Playland, thus making the narrative arch oddly reminiscent of National Lampoon's Vacation (1983).

4) Aside from the film's wit, ultimately, I think, its chief pleasure resides in the viewer's ability to combine all of his or her concerns into one enemy--zombies--and then take pleasure in massacring them. As World War Z: An Oral History of the Zombie War author Max Brooks puts it:

"I think its been gathering steam throughout the [George W.] Bush years," he explained. "We live in some really uncertain times and I think people are being just bombarded with so many problems and so many fears and so many anxieties, it's kind of hard to keep track of them. And I think zombies, because they're so apocalyptic, are a great way for people to coalesce their anxieties into one threat."

Zombieland not only unites all of these threats, it supplies a violent solution that draws on the Western tradition of gunslinging vigilante justice (perhaps one reason why the film's characters turn around and drive west). In his dystopic out of print science fiction novel Stand on Zanzibar (1968), John Brunner imagined an over-populated future in which people frequently turned "mucker." Oppressed by everyone around them, muckers run amuck, killing everyone indiscriminately until someone murders them in turn. It may seem like a stretch to relate the playful comic horror of Zombieland with this extreme irrational violence, but they exist along the same axis, only zombies render massacres guilt-free and thereby suitable for mass entertainment.

Whatever the means, Zombieland satiates that desire to shake off the constraints of civilization, clear a space, and live happily in the ruins. As the trailer for the movie gloomily points out, we live with the threat of "epidemics, climate change, and dwindling resources." A mere zombie outbreak seems outright pleasant in comparison.

12 comments:

Hokahey said...

I enjoyed your list of pleasures here. I found the movie to be totally satisfying even though I'm tired of zombie movies as a genre. This one kicks new life into the genre, and it's funny - I laughed aloud more times than I've laughed during all the movies I've seen in more than a year. I will post some thoughts soon.

You focus nicely on why the post-apocalyptic scenario can provide a sense of freedom we can enjoy vicariously. That's why I love movies and novels like this. Many of the novels, like this movie, include a journey across the destroyed land: The Stand, Earth Abides, Eternity Road, The Road. Even though the last one is too grim to afford any positive sides to the situation, the others evoke a sense of enjoyment in the freedom and the hope that society will develop into a simpler way of life unadulterated by the negative sides of technology and development.

Where does all the gas come from? If the electicity is on, you can pump it at a gas station that still has a supply, though I guess you'd have to find a manual way of pumping it if the electicity is off. In the novels above, the characters often siphon it from other cars.

Earth Abides, the classic of this genre, takes the post-apocalyptic era from its beginning (a plague) all the way to the development of a Native American-type culture - way past the point at which gas has run out and canned food supplies have been exhausted or spoiled. In King's The Stand the survivors too conveniently rely on canned food. In The Stand the leavings are grimmer and people resort to cannibalisim. Also, in The Stand the characters rely on bicycles for the cross country trip - no need for gas.

As you can see, I love this genre. I'm fascinated by how people might survive during and after extreme disasters. Despite its silliness, I am looking forward to 2012. (Had to close my eyes through a very lengthy 2012 preview - a new version, from the sounds of it.)

Meredith L. Grau said...

Great article. It is interesting that zombie films seem to be the only ones that scare anyone anymore, (because of their apocalyptic nature), but for the very same reason also serve as a social release. I guess the contradiction is why the humor works, as it did in "Shaun of the Dead."

Rick Olson said...

do not look for much plausibility

It's a ZOMBIE movie! Lighten up!

(although I thought the exact same thing about the electricity in the end)

FilmDr said...

Thanks, Hokahey,

I will look into Earth Abides. I read The Road and found that fun too, for some reason. It may not be right, but it cheers me to imagine huge swathes of the human population disappearing.

Thanks, Meredith,

I thought of Shawn of the Dead too, but that film plays more with the conventions of zombie films much like the Scream series did. Zombieland lifts aspects of 27 Days Later without the horror.

Rick,

Good point. I've been reading too much John Simon film criticism recently, and he always considers the plausibility of the film. Perhaps one could say one of the reasons why classic zombie films like Night of the Living Dead hold up well is due to the way they retain a surface plausibility. One could say the rules of Zombieland are plausible, but then the film becomes gradually less so as it shifts west. The amusement park ride element got cloying when Columbus stumbles inside a haunted house ride.

Invisible Woman said...

yeah, the haunted house thing was definitely hack, but how the heck did those girls get off that ride to escape the zombies? biggest plot hole ever.

that being said, i really enjoyed this one...just fun!

FilmDr said...

Thanks, Invisible Woman. Funny how the most playful pleasant film in recent memory is a zombie flick.

Jason Bellamy said...

Catching up on blog reading ...

This is a very good point, as incorrect as it seems on first glance: "Aside from the obvious downsides, wouldn't such an apocalypse be tremendously liberating?" About, gosh, six years ago or so when there was that major black out in parts of the Midwest and Northwest, I was in Ohio on a business trip and experienced that. It wasn't an apocalypse by any means, but it was interesting to watch the world slow down for a bit. People couldn't do all the things they planned on doing, so they just relaxed and took things as they came.

P.S. I was really bothered by the fact that there are 30-some rules but we only get about 10 of them, and all of them repeated twice.

FilmDr said...

Thanks, Jason.

Perhaps the other rules were being saved for the sequel? The lack of further development of those rules didn't bother me. The rules we did learn about often seemed humorously practical for many occasions (such as "cardio"). Rules supply a way to order the chaotic feel at the beginning of the movie. They create discipline amidst the anarchy.

Jason Bellamy said...

Everyone keeps talking about a sequel, but I don't quite get it. Is it just more of the same? I know that works with Saw, but here? Would they bring in new characters so we meet them, or do they use the characters we already know?

As for the rules: It doesn't bother me that we don't hear all of them. It bugs me that each of the rules we learn about in the beginning conveniently come around the pike a second time, thus giving the sense that there are really only 10 rules and the rest are bullshit. Maybe I'm not making sense.

FilmDr said...

No, you make sense, but the rules also explain why a wimp such as Columbus can survive. Also they give Tallahasee something to mock while hanging out with Columbus (because he clearly doesn't need them). The rules are a remnant of civilization, but the gun related ones give the characters and the audience a chance to indulge in good old vigilante American justice. All of the gunplay reminded me of the subversive pleasure in smoking a cigarette in other recent films. They get to ditch any politicized ideas about gun use and give in to the pleasures of our Western heritage. The rules are ultimately a curious blend of prudent health conscious advice and fun ways to destroy.

viagra online said...

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Shazzy said...

A note for you to remember, in case, you go watch another zombie flick:

There are two kind of zombie flicks. One, the kind which is serious apocalypse kind and the other which is the pulp kind and wants you to just sit back and enjoy. This satisfying, enjoyable film belongs to the latter category.

Btw, Bill Murray's is one of the best cameos of the year.