Director Edgar Wright coined an apt term for Shaun of the Dead's genre - Romantic Zombie Comedy, or affectionately, 'rom-zom-com'. In doing so, he opened the door for a few me-too films out there who dared to lay their cards on the table - but none have been able to measure up to the British comedy flick thus far.
Happily then, we can give Zombieland a deserving nod - an American take on the rom-zom-com, deftly juggling extreme gore with genuine laughs and a terrific cameos from one of Hollywood's finest. It falls into the pratfalls of predictability, but even the saccharine moments barely detract from this good-natured comedy.
There are only so many ways you can retell the same zombie uprising - and first-time director Ruben Fleischer, along with writers Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick, have sidestepped explanation to focus on the aftermath - the North American continent is in ruins, and only the disciplined and ruthless survive. This is 'Zombieland' now. At the centre of what is, at heart, a simple story is 'Columbus', a twentysomething loner and self-confessed wuss who leads viewers into the film's cardinal rules for survival in Zombieland.
Played by 'Adventureland (no filmic relation)'s Jesse Eisenberg, who falls neatly into the 'Michael Cera School of Detached and Put-upon but Likeable Lead Actors', Columbus is legging it across America to search for his family - or a safe place to settle into. When he runs into 'Tallahassee', played by the fantastically unhinged and expert scenery-chewer Woody Harrelson, the polar opposite characters take a liking to each other and decide to press on towards California together. They're soon joined by con-artist sisters Wichita (Emma Stone) and Little Rock (Abigail Breslin) who present problems of their own.
The production certainly adheres to a clear-cut formula; there's the road-trip, the lovelorn boy, the jaded girl, the hyper-aggressive softie and the cute-kid-who-pulls-through. However, Zombieland doesn't pull its punches when it comes to violence; it's at once as gory a zombie film as the genre arguably demands, and the atmosphere pulls cues from '28 Days Later's abandon and desolation - this time Hollywood Boulevard gets the silent treatment. As a spectacle, it's impressive stuff - even if the novelty has started to wear thin.
Counterbalancing the gimmickry of beating zombies with sledgehammers and baseball bats are the comic set-ups that give Zombieland that same broad appeal as Shaun of the Dead. The digital overlay 'rules' is a great device that acts as a visual punch-line indicator, and the film has been shot with a level of quality that actually punches well above its genre's weight.
Harrelson too deserves a special mention; leaping from No Country for Old Men to Zombieland, Harrelson knows how to pick his scripts, and he delivers a very memorable performance here, too.
Emma Stone, who audiences will remember from Superbad and The Rocker, once again shows her knack for off-handed, often cynical, delivery. Her expressions are dead-on, again reminding us that she's one of Hollywood's best young comedians. There isn't a natural chemistry between Eisenberg and herself, however, despite Eisenberg's undeniable gentle charm.
That's the single biggest flaw in Zombieland; it's still very much beholden to the tenets of mainstream Hollywood dogma. It lays on the romantic subtext, forces textual leaps that it doesn't need to take - and sometimes these lead to some scenes that feel like the easy way out. There's a key climatic scene in particular that leads one particular character towards a triumphant blaze-of-glory death scene, only to return to see a Hollywoodized happy resolution that ultimately deflates the impact, despite the comedic tone.
Still, the one-liners and rapid-fire jokes pull Zombieland back in line when the love hearts begin to fill the screen. Situation comedy may be an easy route towards laughs, but balancing bloodshed with giggles still takes a finer degree of writing and directorial timing than your typical TV series.
There are plenty of Gen Y-related pokes for the teens in the audience and enough product placement to choke a horse - but it's the sincerity that ultimately prevails. When the credits finally roll (and stay for the tag at the end), you'll leave with a smile. Zombieland tells a simple story - and sometimes a simple story well told is enough.