4 stars, (R)
So I'm at an advance screening of the horror-comedy Zombieland and there, in the row in front of me, sits a woman with several kids, a couple of whom are clearly under 10. Little kids at Zombieland, for Pete's sake! I discreetly get the woman's attention and, in carefully modulated nonjudgmental tones, say, "Excuse me, I just thought you should know that from what I've read, this movie is going to be intensely violent and really, really gross." She nodded and said, "Thank you for letting me know" while one of the youngest children shouted, "Cool!"
At the end of Zombieland the audience, including the woman and the kids, gave the movie a hearty round of applause. I joined in, as did my adult son, Donald, who normally dislikes violent, gross films and was only attending because he had nothing special to do that evening. Clearly, everybody but me already understood that the over-the-top carnage and the gushing body fluids was nothing to worry about - hell, it was part of the fun.
Those of you likely to be disturbed by graphic violence and goo have already determined that a movie called Zombieland may not be up your alley, so here's my new warning: Hey zombie-comedy fans, don't let your expectations get too high. Yes, it's funny. Yes, the carnage is pretty imaginative. But the script has some weak points and the story has no firm sense of direction. If you go in expecting the zombie-comedy equivalent of Ghostbusters you're going to be sorely disappointed. But if you keep your expectations in check, you'll have a ball.
Jesse Eisenberg (Adventureland) and Woody Harrelson are the stars of the show, with Emma Stone (Superbad) and Little Miss Sunshine's Abigail Breslin providing support. Eisenberg sets the cheeky deadpan tone of the film from the start, explaining the rules of surviving in a world ravaged by zombies over the opening credits.
The mild-mannered young man hits the road, where he soon meets Tallahassee (Harrelson), a tough-as-nails zombie-squishing bad-ass who only calls people by the names of places, to avoid getting too personal. Eisenberg is dubbed Columbus, since he was headed to Ohio in the hope that his folks are somehow still alive. Columbus and Tallahassee soon encounter sisters Wichita (Stone) and Little Rock (Breslin). The four band together, more or less, and head off on a coming-of-age, monster-filled road trip, with significant stops at the mansion of Tallahasse's favorite movie star (I'm biting my tongue here - I'll just say that the best joke in the movie happens during this part) and at an amusement park (points for extra-creative zombie dispatching in this stretch).
Pairing relative newcomer Jesse Eisenberg and the great Woody Harrelson was an inspired decision. The bond between the two holds the movie together during the thinner parts of Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick's screenplay. Director Ruben Fleischer's stylishly in-your-face staging helps gloss over the aimless parts. The film also includes a wonderful cameo appearance by the man, the legend, the one-and-only Bill Murray, and any movie with Bill Murray and Woody Harrelson sharing scenes gets major bonus points in my book. Incidentally, the zombies are the fast-moving kind and I prefer the sluggish-but-relentless type, but what the hey. Wish they were scarier, though.
As zombie-comedies go, Shaun of the Dead remains at the top of the heap (not that the heap of zombie-comedies is all that big), but Zombieland is a major minor treat.