The great/terrible thing about zombie movies is, like any genre, they tend to follow a certain set of rules: don’t use the Z word when describing zombies; humans are always more dangerous than brain-eaters; there are no safe havens; slow zombies for creepiness but fast zombies for thrills; somehow even if there is no more food there are always bullets lying around. And so on. These conventions are great for delivering a consistent narrative experience, but they’re also a one-way path to lazy writing and genre overload, fates that zombie movies have most definitely suffered over the last 10 years or so. Thankfully, there are still ways to make a fun and kickass zombie movie if you’re aware enough of the rules to know where, how and why they might still deliver some value. And Zombieland is no exception—a movie so aware of the rules about zombies that it is itself a movie about the rules about zombies.
The story takes place just a few months after a weird kind of mad cow disease has wiped out civilization, turning humanity into a walking morgue and leaving its dwindling survivors so rattled that they would rather go it alone than take a chance on making human connections. After all, that might break one’s heart or more likely, lead one into a situation that gets everyone killed. Our hero is Columbus, a geeky college kid who has become an improbably successful survivor in this world because he’s observant enough to make a list of proven survival techniques (Rule #1: Cardio) and smart enough to abide by them. As he makes his way from Austin to his namesake hometown, he encounters Tallahassee, a mildly unhinged zombie-killer who seems to enjoy this post-apocalypse scenario just a little too much. The two then meet a pair of female grifters, Wichita and Little Rock, and after a few unfriendly encounters with each other, the group calls a truce and decides to band together—even if only for a little while—to travel all the way to Los Angeles, where a rumored safe haven exists at the Pacific Playland amusement park. It’s a great plan. The only thing that could possibly go wrong is everything.
Zombieland is a nifty examination of a question people probably don’t want to ask out loud: what if the apocalypse wasn’t terrible for everybody? What if the world ended and somehow you ended up with a better life than before? Or at least learned to have a little fun? As we follow Columbus, a guy practically kept alive by the very things that made him kind of a failure before the world ended, we get to meet all kinds of characters who seem to have needed global apocalypse to prompt them to find their best selves. But it’s not without cost. Columbus has to endure a harrowing close encounter with his zombified girlfriend. Tallahassee needed to lose his puppy dog—which might be a bigger backstory than at first appears—to find the super-alpha persona that takes pleasure in finding Rube Goldberg-ian ways to dispatch zombies. Wichita’s aprrenticehood in con artistry was no picnic. The sole exception seems to be Little Rock, who was an innocent and well-adjusted kid before the zombies, and apart from losing her family—table stakes for a zombie scenario, to be honest—she still seems to be okay. Some folks can handle anything, and they’re never the ones you’d expect.
Throughout all of the double crosses and banjo fights with zombies and road trip mayhem is an absurdist through line that somehow lets us laugh at the grim absurdity of the proceedings without ever forgetting that everybody gets bitten eventially. Gallows humor is a tricky thing to pull off without feeling guilty for laughing at the doomed, but Tallahassee’s constant frustration at a world without Twinkies, Columbus’s constant need to sanitize his hands seems excessive even now and Wichita’s constant skepticism at a world that finally deserves it all add up to a group of folks who are a lot of fun to watch as they make their way across zombified America. By the time they make it to Pacific Playland (which even the main characters know isn’t likely to be the safe place that was advertised), we have done the impossible. And that is, to genuinely care about the final destination of four people who we would never have given much thought to otherwise.
The climax delivers the kind of fracas we’d hope for with folks like Wichita and Tallahassee driving things, and seeing Columbus finally find a rule worth breaking is especially gratifying. It all brings us to a conclusion that gets back to the golden rule of zombie movies: live together, die alone. That counts for more than tactical survival situations. That applies even when there aren’t the walking dead all over the place. Trust is the ultimate survival skill, and being a family requires the quietest kind of heroism there is. Sometimes it takes an apocalypse for some people to discover that.
Thankfully, none of that is the moment of truth here, since Zombieland really isn’t about delivering some grand observation on the human or inhuman condition. It’s about the lengths we’ll go to have a good time in a bad place. And to illustrate that, we are given what might be the greatest horror movie cameo of all time. How that whole scene plays out underscores the central truth of the story: that it kind of sucks to get attached to anything. But the things we get attached to are almost always worth it. Even if they end way before we want them to, and even if we might feel not so great about it afterward. When our heroes’ extended Hollywood sleepover ends, we’re left thinking, welp, that just happened, didn’t it? Yeah, man. This is Zombieland. Enjoy your stay.