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Mystery guest propels 'Zombieland' from terrific zom-com to self-mocking satire

Jesse Eisenberg, left, and Woody Harrelson are on the hunt for flesh eaters in the new horror comedy Zombieland.

Columbia Pictures

Jesse Eisenberg, left, and Woody Harrelson are on the hunt for flesh eaters in the new horror comedy Zombieland.

Every horror movie is a comedy, if you think about it. Usually it's due to people doing dumb things making themselves victims, or a reflexive tension release but laughter is still laughter.

Few horror movies hack away at funny bones with as much lunatic abandon as Zombieland, a budding cult classic in which the living constantly upstage the living dead. The same can be said for Shaun of the Dead and a Sam Raimi flick or two, but Zombieland carves its own niche with brazen gore, devilish comedy, a little romance and a hilariously odd celebrity cameo perfectly suiting every other wacky touch.

You won't have the surprise spoiled here but I strongly urge seeing Zombieland before the guest star's identity leaks out. Heck, I knew it was coming and still can't believe one of the funniest actors alive can top himself in about five minutes on screen in the last movie you'd expect to see him.

That isn't all that director Ruben Fleischer cooks up for his impressive debut. From start to finish, Zombieland is a fresh take on a decomposing genre, starting with the hero, an unnamed, neurotic teenager (Jesse Eisenberg, Adventureland) ticking off rules — cleverly, bloodily illustrated and later used as call-back jokes — for surviving in a world overrun by flesh chompers. (Rule No. 1: cardio, since fatties are easier to catch.)

The teen will soon be nicknamed Columbus by the natural born zombie killer Tallahassee (Woody Harrelson) during a road trip searching for anywhere safe and Twinkies. They'll encounter conning sisters Wichita (Emma Stone) and Little Rock (Abigail Breslin) on their way to a California amusement park that's supposedly zombie-free. Don't worry, it isn't.

That's about it for the plot, but Fleischer packs each scene with funny pop culture references, telling flashbacks and inventive means of mass murder. You'll never again see theme park rides and games without flashing back to Zombieland's climax, literally a funhouse of horror and desperate ingenuity to survive. The movie runs only 81 minutes counting end credits, with Fleischer making each one count.

Sick humored? Absolutely, with Harrelson's wild-eyed redneck glint leading the way, in his funniest performance since Kingpin. Eisenberg is the thinking teen's Michael Cera, a blank-faced repository of phobias and insecurity but handy with a sawed-off shotgun. Stone and Breslin play relatively normal characters yet with scoundrel souls making their next moves hard to predict.

Then there's the mystery guest, propelling an already excellent zom-com into an uncharted territory of self-mocking satire. Even better, the movie actually picks up steam after he's gone. If there's anything to dislike about Zombieland — except for squeamish viewers, of course — I was laughing too much to notice.

Steve Persall can be reached at persall@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8365. Read his blog, Reeling in the Years, at blogs.tampabay.com/movies.

Zombieland

Grade: A

Director: Ruben Fleischer

Cast: Woody Harrelson, Jesse Eisenberg, Emma Stone, Abigail Breslin, Amber Heard

Screenplay: Rhett Reese, Paul Wernick

Rating: R; graphic violence and gore, strong profanity

Running time: 81 min.

Mystery guest propels 'Zombieland' from terrific zom-com to self-mocking satire 10/01/09 [Last modified: Friday, October 2, 2009 8:57am]
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