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THE AISLE SEAT - by Mike McGranaghan


Woody Harrelson helps Jesse Eisenberg escape the undead.
My initial reaction to Zombieland was one of skepticism. I wasn't sure the world needed another zombie comedy (or "zomcom" as Variety amusingly calls them) when Shaun of the Dead had done that genre mash-up so brilliantly. That being the case, I can't quite believe I'm about to say what I'm about to say: As awesome as Shaun was, I think Zombieland is even better. This high-energy, mile-a-minute film finds some original angles for the zombie picture. It's got all the over-the-top action of Wanted mixed with all the gore of a good George Romero flick.

This is the story of four people who have somehow made it through an outbreak that has turned the rest of humanity into flesh-eating undead. Because they all share an initial belief that personal attachments could potentially put them in danger, they refer to each other only by geographical nicknames. Jesse Eisenberg plays Columbus, an awkward young virgin with an inconvenient case of Irritable Bowel Syndrome and a fear of just about everything. After a time spent thinking he was the world's lone survivor, he meets Tallahassee (Woody Harrelson), a no-nonsense zombie killer with a taste for Twinkies and a penchant for pop cultural references you'd never think he would make. ("Did you ever read that book, He's Just Not That Into You?" he asks Columbus) They start traveling together, only to run into a con artist named Wichita (Emma Stone) and her sister Little Rock (Abigail Breslin).

Each of them has heard rumors of a safe place that's zombie-free. Wichita is particularly determined to get to one of them - a California amusement park where she thinks Little Rock can be a carefree kid for just a while. The crew tries to make its way there, of course encountering a lot of obstacles along the way. Now that I think about it, Zombieland is kind of like Wanted mixed with Dawn of the Dead with a dash of National Lampoon's Vacation thrown in. If that excites you, get in the ticket line now.

Here's the thing about zombie movies (and, for the record, I love them): most of them are kind of the same. People run, people hide, people get bitten and then have to be killed before they can "turn." Zombieland, taking more of a comedic approach, chooses instead to show us how the characters react to the catastrophe around them and how they interact with one another while traversing the country. Columbus, for example, has concocted a set of survival rules to live by, and he clings to them inflexibly. Tallahassee thinks the rules are stupid, and even delights in tormenting the zombies; he doesn't pass up the chance to bang one of them in the head with a car door given the chance. And, of course, Columbus takes notice of the lovely Wichita, figuring that since she's the last remaining female his own age, he might be able to finally rid himself of that damn virginity.

Some of the fun comes from the fact that three of the characters don't seem to be likely survival candidates. Seriously, in a zombie apocalypse, would you want Abigail Breslin by your side? Writers Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick find humor in that idea, but also slowly come to show us how they have, in fact, survived. Feistiness, resourcefulness, and personal eccentricities get them through. Much of the pleasure for us comes in watching these quirky characters - well played by the ensemble cast - try to figure everyone else out.

I love the sense of invention in this movie. The story doesn't unfold in city streets or abandoned buildings like so many undead flicks. Instead, the action occurs in more unlikely places such as cheesy souvenir shops, Hollywood mansions and, grocery stores. The last section of Zombieland, set in an amusement park, is an example of what makes it so great. The rides actually become part of the story. They are places to hide and also tools for killing the zombies. Taking something familiar and putting it in a fresh setting adds a whole other layer of coolness. When two characters get trapped atop a ride while a horde of hungry zombies swarm below, the thrills amp up considerably.

And then there is the thing we cannot talk about. Zombieland has a surprise which critics have been asked not to reveal (and which no critic worth his/her salt would consider spoiling). Let's just say that while in California, Tallahassee comes up with an interesting place for he and his crew to take refuge. This leads to a little plot detour that is filled with hilarious dialogue and an I can't believe they did that moment destined to be one of the most talked-about movie scenes of the year.

There's no substance to Zombieland whatsoever, but it scarcely matters. First-time director Ruben Fleischer stages the action scenes in creative ways, using camera movement, slo-mo, and editing so that even when something really disgusting is on screen, it still comes off as funny. The film bounces back and forth between bits of high comedy, intense gore, and character study. Somehow it all works. Zombieland makes undead cinema fresh again. This movie is just ridiculously, insanely, enormously entertaining.

( 1/2 out of four)

Zombieland is rated R for horror violence/gore and language. The running time is 1 hour and 28 minutes.

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