Zombieland, the second horror-comedy to be released in the last couple of weeks (in this case, horror-action-comedy is probably a more apt description),is everything Jennifer's Body was not--fast, funny, and fully aware of the obligations and opportunities inherent in the genre. The movie opens with a few ironic flashes of the zombie apocalypse that befell the United States when one man's consumption of a tainted burger led to a nationwide outbreak of "mad human" disease: A woman with a "The End is Near Sign" meets her nearer-than-anticipated end; a flesh-eating stripper in a G-string chases an unlucky john from a club; a flaming zombie tackles a firefighter.
Jesse Eisenberg plays the film's protagonist, Columbus (as in "Columbus, Ohio"--the few human survivors go by the names of their hometowns to avoid intimacy), who managed to escape this acute social disease in part because he was an unpopular loner to begin with, and in part because he adheres to an extensive, some might say obsessive, set of rules. He spells them out in voiceover--Rule Number One, "Cardio," Rule Number Three, "Beware of bathrooms," etc.--and then demonstrates them in action when an unfriendly undead bursts out of a public restroom with brains on the brain.
It's not long before he enters into odd-couplehood with Tallahassee (Woody Harrelson), an Escalade-driving cowboy who immediately announces, "I'm not easy to get along with." If Columbus is neurotic superego--cautious, clown-phobic, a devotee of World of Warcraft and Code Red Mountain Dew--Tallahassee is all id: a shotgun-, chainsaw-, pickaxe-, and whatever-else-comes-to-hand-wielding can of zombie whoop-ass. The two, in turn, run into young sisters Wichita (Emma Stone) and Little Rock (Abigail Breslin), who are not quite as helpless as initially advertised. As with any family, and especially one so hastily assembled, there are betrayals, departures, reunions, a lengthy road trip, and (mostly) happy endings.
Working from a script by Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick, rookie feature director Ruben Fleischer hurls a heady, if conventional, array of effects at the audience: flashbacks pop, Columbus's "rules" spin across the screen, and we're treated to a dazzling variety of methods for taking the "un" out of undead. There are witty references to Deliverance, Titanic, Ghostbusters,and Anaconda, as well as a better joke about Garfield than any joke in Garfield. The movie even sneaks in the most appealing cameo by a star playing himself since Neil Patrick Harris hijacked Harold & Kumar. (I won't spoil the surprise.) Zombieland may not be quite as clever as it sometimes imagines itself to be, but it's more than clever enough for its purposes.
The cast is solid if unexceptional, all firmly in their comfort zones. Eisenberg's hurried, self-doubting patter is entirely serviceable, though it's starting to wear a bit, especially in voiceover. He's not someone who's going to get away with this shtick for decades, like model Woody Allen--he lacks the underlying mania. Harrelson is in genial redneck mode, and if he doesn't much exert himself in the role, well, he doesn't much have to. Emma Stone, who has shown flashes in Superbad, The Rocker, and The House Bunny, is given somewhat broader range here, and makes the most of the opportunity. And Abigail Breslin, like Dakota Fanning before her, manages to keep her head above water while navigating the treacherous shoal between cinematic girlhood and movie teendom.
The movie concludes in a fictional West Coast amusement park ("Pacific Playland") plagued by zombies--one half-expects an undead Clark Griswold to show up--where, as is typical in the genre, the balance between action and comedy tilts rather heavily toward the former. But unlike, say, Tropic Thunder, the movie never falls completely out of kilter: The various recreations at Pacific Playland offer more than a few entertaining ways to dispatch the undead, notable among them a pendulum-like ride called "The Rattler." (Ask not for whom The Rattler tolls, zombies…) It's a fitting finale for a movie that's not unlike a giddy amusement park ride itself. As Columbus's Rule Number Four warns, fasten your seatbelt.
Christopher Orr is a senior editor of The New Republic.