Ever since I first saw him hook up with Juliette Lewis and go on an interstate slaughter frenzy in Natural Born Killers, I’ve been itching to see Woody Harrelson appear as a screen sociopath again. I’m all for indiscriminate murder rampages in the movies (where the corpses don’t come with ‘real world’ guilt) and Harrelson’s Mickey Knox has that appealing wild-eyed amoral edge that makes for the best kind of cinema antihero. The twisted tale of Mickey and Mallory is the Bonnie And Clyde of the ‘90s. The problem? The psychopaths are stuck in a befuddled bad movie.
It’s good news then that in Zombieland Harrelson gets to play violent hick without having to first fight off every moviemaking technique that’s been mashed into the frame as part of a vague directorial desire to comment on media-saturated culture. With Oliver Stone and politics out of the picture (they’re probably rotting by the side of the road having been savaged by the living dead), Harrelson’s action man – named Tallahassee – has space to breathe and bring the violence without detracting distractions.
What makes Tallahassee so cool is the fact that he goes about battering the hungry reanimated stiffs in superb style. In contrast to the neurotic rules and all-consuming anxiety of companion Columbus (Jesse Eisenberg), Tallahassee relishes encounters with the revenants and righteously handles them in an inspired, often-hilarious manner. Beyond basic survival, his post-apocalypse mission is to retrieve the last Twinkie on Earth. Aside from that, heck: he’s all about having a good time in a world overrun by carnage and restless corpses.
His approach is appropriate. When you think about it, if a zombie outbreak were to wipe out the population and turn the globe on its head, I’ve a feeling that the outcome and atmosphere would end up being closer to Zombieland rather than, say, the distress of I Am Legend.
Cautious Columbus may have his survival checklist, but when the undead are stalking the streets, ultimately anarchy reigns supreme and rules cease to be relevant. Columbus’s rule no. 1 is “Cardio”, but perhaps it should be “there are no rules”. Is the zombie uprising going to be all doom and gloom? No way! It’s going to be a new age of liberated self-empowerment and unpunished hedonism!
Zombieland hits the nail on the head here, I feel. When the dead do start emerging from the morgues with a bad case of the munchies it will be a little unsettling at first. However, once people have got their heads around the fact that granny is trying to eat them and that the streets are strewn with bloody entrails they’ll realise that, actually, the pandemic is something to celebrate. In fact, it’s an absolute blast.
All the systems, structures and other constraining mechanisms of modern ‘civilisation’ have fallen by the wayside or been chomped up by an animate corpse, so go bananas! You don’t need to think about paying the bills or observing the law now; you can enjoy yourself as you wish without worry.
Just as the last survivors in Dawn Of The Dead embrace chaos by turning the Monroeville shopping mall into their own massive playground, the four heroes of Zombieland adapt to the circumstances with imagination and a spirit of enthusiasm. The undead are attacking, so why not experiment with a wide array of weapons and have a wild time of it? When they’re not taking baseball bats or duelling banjos to the swollen brains of the cadaverous ones, they’re taking full advantage of the desolation and enjoying unrestricted access to abandoned theme parks and mansions of the rich and famous. After the initial shock, I’m willing to bet that ‘real’ society would do the same.
Why bemoan the bad luck and bleakness of it all? Time and time again humankind has prevailed, put on a brave face and progressed when confronted by tragedy and seemingly insurmountable adversity. The zombie apocalypse would, no doubt, be experienced as a Night Of The Living Dead nightmare for a bit but, just like every crisis that has cropped up throughout the span of history, eventually we’d get used to it, accept it and then gloss over it with gallows humour.
Eventually, slaughtering and the hard business of survival would become normalised and mundane. It’d all end up being a daily chore and, consequently, boring, which is where the cathartic creative killing of Zombieland kicks in. To note the wisdom of the eponymous supernanny of Mary Poppins: “For every task that must be done, there is an element of fun. You find the fun and, snap! The job’s a game.”
Those struggling to find motivation in the post-apocalyptic milieu would do well to remember that a spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down. The hard work of hanging in there and holding off the zombies is much more enjoyable if it’s made into a sport, a capering adventure or a competition.
With Tallahassee playing Quest for the Lost Twinkie and competing for “Zombie Kill of the Week”, the new film is a kindred spirit to Brit rom-zom-com Shaun Of The Dead; it just slugs shuffling legions with a baseball bat, being American, rather than a good old-fashioned cricket bat. The scenes where Shaun, Ed and friends take on their festering foes by playing Musical Whack-A-Long to the pub jukebox and decide which of the LPs in their record collection are alright to use as throwing weapons are not just comedy sketches. They represent the blackly comic manner in which people would deal with the real dawn of the dead.
As acknowledged in rule no. 32 of Zombieland: “Enjoy the little things.” When all hell breaks loose and civilisation as we know it collapses in the face of the revived threat that’s rampaging out of the cemeteries, finding what fun remains and approaching life with optimism is the only way to survive and bear the brutality.
Why bother sitting under bleakness and despair when there’s the opportunity to loco and grin your way through a post-apocalyptic party? Following the lead of Tallahassee and his amigos in Zombieland, panicking or glumly going through the motions will get you nowhere. “Nut up or shut up.” Put on a pair of sturdy cowboy boots, grab a few blunt objects and crank Metallica tunes on a ghetto blaster. The undead uprising will be an enjoyable experience. Time to kill me some zombies…
James’ previous column can be found here.