They said zombie romance couldn't be done, but new gorecom Zombieland proves it can. And it's not sappy romance either - it delivers the angsty, twitchy, hyperverbal courtship style of the geek generation. Dystopia is the perfect hookup prelude.
So how exactly do you make a feel-good romantic comedy wrapped inside a blood-soaked future where the human race has reached a diseased dead end? In Zombieland, director Ruben Fleischer does it by combining your typical college nerd shut-in character Columbus with a world gone mad. Though you'd expect that a skinny dork would be the last person to survive a zombie infestation, in fact his antisocial skills serve him well in the apocalypse. "I treated everybody like zombies anyway," he admits in the hilarious voiceover commentary that peppers the movie, along with YouTube-style pop-up text to underscore key points. Like Columbus' "rules" for survival, including "double tap" (always shoot zombies twice) and "avoid bathrooms" (apparently they like to chomp people relaxing in public toilets).
After a World War Z-style disease apocalypse recycles every human in America into a crazed flesh-eater, Columbus goes on a cross-country trek to Ohio to find his parents. He's not sure why - he's never been close to his family - but it seems like the right thing to do. On the way he meets up with maniacal redneck Tallahassee (Woody Harrelson), who has lost everything he loves and now takes a perverse joy in killing zombies in the most creative way possible. They strike up a strange but satisfying friendship, and Columbus decides to join Tallahassee on his quest to find the nation's only remaining stash of Twinkies. Because - why not? The world is over. Might as well enjoy processed food items.
Joining their little group are young woman Wichita and preteen Little Rock (everybody goes by the names of their Red State home cities). A shy, funny romance develops between Columbus, whose first semi-sexual experience ended in the lady going zombie on his ass, and Wichita, a con artist who trusts nobody and keeps trying to steal the guys' stuff. Eventually, however, they all decide to trust each other and head to Los Angeles. Little Rock has heard there's an amusement park there that's free of zombies, and the group decides to indulge her fantasy because - why not? Along the way, they bond over zombie killing and randomly smashing the shit out of horrible tourist shops filled with fake Indian souvenirs.
There are sneakily subversive moments throughout the film which seem to celebrate the demise of America - or, to be more precise, a certain kind of America. The kind of America where wooden Indians are sold in roadside stands; the kind where zombies roam Home Depot and violent videogames prepare you for real life. It's no accident that the movie begins with a tattered American flag that's fallen to the ground in the ruins of a zombie-infested city. But there's an undeniable exuberance to all this destruction. We're not mourning for a lost America, but looking forward to a crazy, liberated new one. This is a dystopia where romance blooms, not the kind where cannibals cook little kids for dinner.
Movies like Superbad and Nick and Norah's Infinite Playlist showcased the sweet, romantic side of nerd boys by placing them in ordinary teen courtship situations. The genius of Zombieland is that it swaps out high school for a surreal landscape that nevertheless clearly evokes the emotions associated with growing up. To be young is to laugh at death, and therefore nothing feels more true to that sensibility than finding humor in hordes of diseased, blood-spurting monsters and the social anarchy they sew. Zombieland goes successfully where Buffy the Vampire Slayer has gone before. This is a movie that recognizes nobody reaches adulthood without watching the safe world you once knew go up in flames.
There's always a simmering undercurrent of tenderness that flows beneath the gore and rampant shootings in this flick. Columbus, Tallahassee, Wichita and Little Rock wind up creating a family of outcasts whose connections are genuinely touching. And when Columbus and Wichita finally hook up, their passion for each other is earned. It's not one of those "well we just fought monsters let's hump" deals that you get in countless horror movies. They've gotten to know each other as people, not as zombie fighters. In fact, as I suggested earlier, the zombies are just a sick-comical stand-in for the trashed, psychotic world they're inheriting from the previous generations.
Like all excellent date movies, Zombieland leaves you feeling good - not just about your prospects for getting laid tonight, but about the whole future of our species. We can survive anything, and still keep falling into bumbling, goofy love with each other. Even when zombies are trying to eat our heads.