Movies · Reviews

Fantastic Fest Review: Zombieland

By  · Published on September 25th, 2009

There is a reason Fantastic Fest is one of the greatest film festivals on the planet. This week , during a screening of Zombieland, I was reminded of that unbridled, nearly intangible awesomeness that keeps me coming back year after year. If I were in charge of programming, this is the film with which I would have kicked off Fantastic Fest V. I was sitting next to fellow Reject Landon Palmer, and this was the first film of his first fest. I kept thinking about how he had just had the perfect Fantastic Fest experience that had set the perfect tone for what promises to be an unstoppable week of the best kind of mayhem.

So Zombieland, eh? This movie is greatness firing on all cylinders. I mentioned in my most-anticipated of Fantastic Fest article that I am a sucker for crazy, fun genre films and that I was excited about Zombieland or that very reason. It’s not often a film that I anticipate this much exceeds my expectations, but Zombieland ran them over with a Mac truck, then backed up and drove over them again. If you love zombie movies, you can’t miss this. If you love Shaun of the Dead, you can’t miss this. If you like genre mash-ups of things that have no business being in the same room, then for the love of Twinkies do not miss this movie.

Zombieland has garnered a lot of comparisons to Shaun of the Dead. Actually any film over the last five years that has blended horror with even a shred of humor has been similarly linked. But the great thing about Zombieland is that it applies the same formula Shaun does with the same monumental success. Instead of taking the bare bones elements of romantic comedies and inserting great zombie dynamics within, it dissects a zombie film and looks for places to insert an amiable teen comedy. The film works on both levels because it celebrates everything that makes each genre work. The violence and unapologetic testosterone of the zombie film is alive in every shot of Harrelson shouldering a giant shotgun perfectly in stride as he spits catchy quips. But at the same time, I liked both Columbus (Jesse Eisenberg) and Witchita (Emma Stone) as the teen romantic leads because he was nerdy and funny and she was a smoking hot, hilarious bitch. I loved all the characters, but the performance to watch here is of course Woody’s.

Woody plays Tallahassee with a blissful abandon of anything resembling reserve. He is zombie kill-crazy and relishes his God-given talent for the sport. He is basically the “I don’t like kids, but I’ll take you brats on cause I’m secretly a good guy” character who appears in every kids film from our childhood. Except in this film, that character kills zombies with a banjo. He is perfect for the role as the patriarch of the teeny zombo-killing brood because he is callous when the scene calls for it, likable pretty much throughout, and effortlessly vicious in the presence of the undead. Plus, I do think it’s awesome that Woody Harrelson finally got to do a film set in the world within his own head.

There is a reason this film is centered around an amusement park. It is ten different flavors of fun. It is impeccably paced and at no point during this film did it feel like it was dragging at all. It is self-referential and self-aware but clever enough not to use it as a crutch. For example, Jesse Eisenberg’s set of rules for surviving the zompocalypse is kith and kin with Randy’s rules for horror films in Screamand it perfectly illustrates the frustrating faux pas of characters in zombie films that end up devoured.

Strap in for this one kids, and remember to avoid bathroom breaks, because Zombieland has arrived and it is going to chew up your eyeballs and spit them out.

The Upside: Incredibly fun horror comedy that beautifully blends zombies with the best of teen comedy.

The Downside: I don’t know, you got something against the undead?

On the Side: Should have been the opening night film at Fantastic Fest this year. Watch for a phenomenal cameo from… well, you’ll see.

Longtime FSR columnist, current host of FSR’s Junkfood Cinema podcast. President of the Austin Film Critics Association.