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FUN AND GAMES WITH THE NUTRITIONALLY CHALLANGED

Reel Time
Dale Hill
www.flickwitch.com

            I didn't actually add up the titles in the helpful lists you can find online, but there are a whole lot of zombie movies out there, and people keep buying tickets to see them or there wouldn't be so many.

            Back in the 1940s and 50s, the Golden Age of trashy B-movies, producer Val Lewton would sometimes turn the Hollywood system on itself: he would get assigned a title from the studio and then lock himself in with his writers and come up with something orthogonal to what the big bosses had in mind. In 1943 he turned the title “I Walked With a Zombie” into an atmospheric, low-key, creepy thriller based on “Jane Eyre,” of all things. The studio bosses were furious, but the critics and the public loved it, so what could they do?

            Though there hasn't ever been a real fall-off in zombie popularity, George Romero breathed new life into the genre, if that's the phrase I want, with “Night of the Living Dead.” Since then there's been no end to the parade of lurching, snarling flesh-eaters, including such hits as Simon Pegg in the wonderful “Shaun of the Dead” in 2004, and “Planet Terror,” Robert Rodriguez's 2007 “Grind House” segment that I rashly predicted was so extreme that it would be the last zombie movie ever made.

            Somebody, however, will always find a way to show me up for a liar, so now we have “Zombieland,” opening to make #1 for this weekend, and worth it, says I.

            “Zombieland” begins pretty much in ultimas res, because the country has been utterly destroyed when Jesse Eisenberg begins his narration, explaining how he survived. Relying on his list of rules (check the back seat; beware of bathrooms) this übernerd plans to get from Austin, where he was in college, to Columbus, Ohio to see if anybody in his family has survived.

            His narration provides flashbacks which explain the situation: these zombies are not exactly dead, they've fallen prey to a quickly-mutating version of the Mad Cow virus (through a fast-food burger, natch), so if you use enough bullets you can kill 'em.

            The character our narrator meets en route is naturally the other best zombie-killer: a slow-talkin' unhinged redneck, played by Woody Harrelson, who's on a quest for the world's last Twinkie. He insists they use no names, just destinations, to avoid any emotional rapprochement, so Columbus joins up with Tallahassee.

            There must, of course, be females for balance, so we soon meet a sister act played by Emma Stone, who's just the right age to match up with Columbus, and Abigail Breslin, who's 12, thus leaving Tallahassee with his junkfood fantasy, because the screenwriters wisely decide not even to hint at that creepy and stereotypical connection.

            The sisters are heading for California to an amusement park they remember fondly from childhood, which they've heard (from whom?) is a Zombie-free zone. Because human beings, even the uninfected kind, are full of suspicions and anxieties, there are a lot of complex confrontations before the quartet reach Southern California, where they take refuge in a celebrity's Beverly Hills mansion – you will not hear from me which celebrity – for some R&R.

            Getting back to my “Grindhouse” prophecy, I feel somewhat vindicated that “Zombieland” doesn't even begin to try to outdo those “Planet Terror” excesses. (Rodriguez's heroine had her leg eaten off, for cryin' out loud., and she replaced it with a machine gun...) There's plenty of mayhem and blood and guts in Zombieland, but most of the fun comes from the scenes in between, when we get to know the four survivors, and find out what exactly makes them survivors.

            In fact there is so much interpersonal time in this movie that action fans may feel somewhat cheated; for them I will guarantee that there is always a big blow-off. In this case, the girls get to the theme park after dark and turn on all the lights and rides, thereby attracting every napping zombie in Ventura County, who are not after funnel cakes and corn dogs.

            At the risk of sounding vieux jeu, as I so often do, I prefer people interacting with people on screen, and that's why I like the use of Hank Williams (sad) and Mozart (happy) as background music for some very good scenes here. But the thing that holds the movie together is Columbus's narration, written in the voice of a kid who has always despaired of making any human connection, and who now, in the wake of the destruction of the human race, finds his chances even more limited. Jesse Eisenberg was the quirkily funny main character in the summer's “Adventureland,” and now that he has survived the end of the world and found a girlfriend, I imagine he'll go on to many simpatico leading roles.