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The invention of zombies
October 7, 2009 - Rick Chatenever
Zombies — you can’t live with ’em, you can’t live without ’em. At least not at the movies. Leaving a sunny afternoon to go into the Maui Mall Megaplex last Saturday, I encountered so many forms of the undead — not to mention the apocalypse — that I was pretty scared, fairly worried, a little depressed and all worn out … and that was just from the trailers.
Good thing “Zombieland” was a comedy. There had been several to choose from. Between the bombast of Michael Moore in “Capitalism: A Love Story,” the cute cynicism of Ricky Gervais in “The Invention of Lying” or the big heart of Drew Barrymore making her directing debut in the roller-derby romp, “Whip It,” I let the early weekend box-office figures make my choice for me.
These Friday-night box-office figures are a sad new reality in modern Hollywood economics, which is changing faster than you can say “Redbox.” Now studio heads know whether they’ve got a hit by midnight on opening Friday — which can’t be a pleasant sensation for filmmakers who learn just as fast their movies are DOA. (It’s not too reassuring for film critics, either, to realize Twittering teens on cell phones have more clout than they do.)
But apart from the blood on the collar, bad teeth, embarrassing table manners and other unappealing aspects of the zombie lifestyle, there were some good reasons for joining the crowds that made “Zombieland” No. 1 on the charts last weekend.
Its star, Woody Harrelson, kind of lives here. This qualifies as a local angle in a slow news week. (His daughter, Deni, has the title role in Seabury Hall’s “Romeo and Juliet,” opening Friday.)
A better reason to see it is that it’s actually good … well, a whole lot of fun, at least.
For those of us who have to do some Googling to remember the difference between zombies, vampires and werewolves, “Zombieland” offers tips about how to survive after they take over. Jesse Eisenberg is our guide as one of the few humans left in an America full of wrecked cars on the highways, and creepy folks with bloody mouths roaming like packs of wolves.
The movie is sort of a road trip through the undead. When the living happen upon one another, they identify themselves by the town they’re heading for. As “Columbus,” Eisenberg exudes the same anti-heroism he showed in “Adventureland.” With earnest, deadpan humor, he’s the leading man to get when Michael Cera’s not available — but the dork factor has morphed into genuine likability before the film ends.
Enter “Tallahassee” — Harrelson in cowboy hat, beads and a Cadillac Escalante. With a demented gleam in his eye and a redneck drawl, he adds a loose cannon factor to the film’s chemistry. (He also adds to his own bankability with this above-the-title star turn that topped the box office. It makes you stop and realize just what a versatile, reliable and now charismatic presence Harrelson has been in a long and amazingly varied body of work.)
Abigail Breslin as Little Rock is a veteran road tripper from her “Little Miss Sunshine” days. And Emma Stone — who has this habit of making you watch her, no matter who else is on screen — rounds out the quartet as Wichita.
Under Ruben Fleisher’s always clever direction, there’s also a major movie star who joins them for some serious fun at his image’s expense when the road leads to Beverly Hills.
“Zombieland” never forgets nor tries to rise above its B-movie, cheap-thrills, horror-comedy origins. Instead, as with the summer hits “The Hangover” and “The Proposal,” it shows how valuable — and rare — good writing and acting are these days.
And so is a good heart. “Juno’s” Oscar-winning screenwriter Diablo Cody recently ventured into the same horror-comedy territory with “Jennifer’s Body,” but never found the right tone. She kept getting the funny parts and the gross parts confused.
Ricky Gervais starts with the novel premise of a world where everyone is wired to tell the truth and what happens when someone doesn’t in the highly original “The Invention of Lying.” While the film has its moments (helped by the sense that Gervais himself is a kind-hearted rather than mean-spirited guy), it never fully delivers on its ingenious premise.
“Zombieland” aims lower, and scores higher. It’s got cult classic written all over it, and fueled by its cast’s chemistry, there’s already talk of a sequel.
Its villains’ literary cousins made their mark on the best-seller list a few months ago in “Pride and Prejudice and Zombies.” Now they’re Hollywood A-listers.
The funny thing is, for all the blood and gore that flow so freely at times, “Zombieland” winds up feeling as warm and fuzzy as a horror show can get.
• Contact Rick Chatenever at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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