With his desperado cowboy hat, biker goatee and leather jacket, and Kurt Russell-circa-Escape From New York smirk, Woody Harrelson seems to be having a blast as the redneck zombie assassin Tallahassee in Zombieland. He’s badass, whereas Ruben Fleischer’s horror-comedy might be better described with either half of that adjective. A slow-mo intro montage of cannibalistic zombies pursuing human prey set to Metallica’s “For Whom the Bell Tolls” sets a tongue-in-cheek headbanging mood, but director Fleischer’s efforts to hybridize various genres (undead apocalypse thriller, nerd-makes-good teen fantasy, gory black comedy) are blighted by unsure directorial stewardship.
Focused on shut-in college student Columbus’s (Jesse Eisenberg) partnership with Tallahassee and, later, grifter sisters Wichita (Emma Stone) and Little Rock (Abigail Breslin) while traversing a desolate American wasteland, the film is a lurching, sketchy affair without a clear sense of tone or, more frustrating still, its own reality. For a world overrun by zombies, there are scarcely any to be found along the foursome’s journey, a situation that reeks of budgetary restrictions (or dunderheaded authorial oversight) and results in a scenario that feels fake and lacks even momentary tension. In place of scares are supposed laughs, though for all its broad levity (tough-guy Tallahassee mourns his dead puppy and craves Twinkies, Columbus is a sissy virgin with parental issues, the surrogate-family clan banters about now-inconsequential nonsense like Hannah Montana during their cross-country road trip), Zombieland spends so little time establishing its world that the proceedings play like a flimsy, tossed-off cartoon.
Throughout, Columbus’s narration informs us of his new-world-order rules, which smartly recall Max Brooks’s pocketbook The Zombie Survival Guide and provide a modicum of believable behavior otherwise painfully absent from Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick’s script, which has its characters do extraordinarily stupid things during an amusement park climax that—replete with Eisenberg pining for an elusive out-of-his-league girl—otherwise merely elicits unflattering comparisons to Adventureland. Unlike its spiritual predecessor Shaun of the Dead, Fleischer’s film doesn’t really get either zombie movies or human relationships, and thus falls back on two-dimensional jokes and myriad mainstream crowd-pandering film references (including a sharp but too-brief star cameo) as a futile means of staving off encroaching, and eventually fatal, creative rigor mortis. Call it Land of the Dull.