Scarlett O’Hairdye remembers the rules of Zombieland, but is surprised to find a potentially troubling character improve in the ten years since, in her resurrection of Ruben “Venom” Fleischer’s zom-com.
Hi, it’s me! Scarlett O’Hairdye, your resident pirate-ologist, here to take on another iconic pop-culture character type: Zombies. Maybe I will eventually manage to review a movie about ninjas, and then one about robots, and really stake my claim as a scholar of genre opponents. I have a tendency not to watch many movies, though, so it’s anyone’s guess whether I’ll accomplish that useless goal.
One of the movies I actually have, in fact, watched, is Zombieland. I am pretty sure I saw this for work, as in 2009 I was in video games and the studio I worked for was making a World War Z pitch, so we watched zombie movies as research. I can’t think of a reason I would have watched it alone otherwise, and the reason I know I watched is alone is when I re-watched it this weekend, my wife watched it with me for the first time. (As an aside, my DVD hold at the library came in the day after I gave up and rented it on Amazon. God dammit.)
I was actually really worried about how this was going to hold up, because a lot of movies starring a nebbish, nerdy white man who somehow gets the girl at the end really do not work ten years later. I at age 34 have even less chill for boring white male protagonists than I did at age 24, and at 24 I already had less chill than the average person. I expect that by age 44 I will have so little chill I will suck the chill from the people around me as our emotions seek some kind of balance, like a cell seeking osmosis. Maybe if I’m still writing reviews in ten years we’ll get to find out together! That’s a different conversation, though. We’re here to discuss a movie.
Zombieland is, at its heart, a movie about people, which is rather an interesting departure from most movies about zombies being about zombies. (In this way I think it probably owes a fair bit to Shaun of the Dead, which is also a movie about people in a world filled with zombies.) The explanation for the zombie plague is thrown out as a quick aside because it’s completely irrelevant to the humans that are left—there’s no way they’re going to cure it, there’s no containing the outbreak, so it’s all about staying alive, and then about seeking joy. Maybe that joy comes from beating a zombie to death with a banjo, if you’re Tallahassee, but it’s a kind of joy nonetheless and who am I to judge?
I was pleased to find on my rewatch that, yes, actually, these characters hold up as more than the sum of their parts. It would have been so easy to leave them as cardboard cutouts, as their first impressions, but since this is a story about people, the screenwriters and actors actually take the time to build them out. Most people remember Tallahassee for the tagline “Nut up or shut up,” which is a reasonable philosophy, but the moment I’ve remembered for ten years is, “Pacific Playland? That place blows! …my mind! Just fun for the whole family!” This is a man who has been taken hostage by the same pair twice in 24 hours, but he feels bad and immediately course-corrects when he insults the dream of a 12-year-old girl. (Who threatened to shoot him with his own gun. More than once.) Wichita and Little Rock get as much backstory and character development as the two male characters, notable for a film where they could have easily been shunted aside as “love interest” and “kid.” Nerdy Everyman Columbus may be our viewpoint character and technically the “star,” but this is an ensemble cast that actually builds the ensemble. Everyone has trauma, everyone grows, and everyone ends the movie in a different, better place than they started. Like Columbus says, “We had each other. And without other people, well, you might as well be a zombie.”
Oh, Columbus. My Zombieland rewatch was really going to live or die on him, and it was a delightful surprise that he actually got better ten years later. Columbus isn’t a lean, mean, zombie-killing machine like Tallahassee, and he’s not a merciless grifter like Wichita and Little Rock, but he’s competent enough to stay alive in Zombieland and, in spite of being a socially awkward nerd, he brings an earnest, optimistic practicality to the group that they sorely need. He dreams of having a girlfriend but avoids any Nice Guy pitfalls because he has zero resentment of women for not dating him because he knows he never leaves his apartment. He comforts his neighbor when she panics about being attacked by a homeless man with hardly any ulterior motive, in spite of nursing a crush on her, and affirms her feelings in a way that male characters in romantic comedies could stand to learn from. There’s something very sweet and pure about his biggest dream in life being to tuck a girl’s hair behind her ear—Columbus doesn’t just want to get laid; he wants actual, real emotional intimacy with another person, which makes it easy to root for him and Wichita. He learns to be brave, she learns to trust, Tallahassee gets a Twinkie, and Little Rock gets to be a kid. Found family, y’all, it’s great.
Not everything stands the test of time; the only people of color in this movie are zombies or zombie victims, and the scene where they destroy a tourist trap to let off some steam would have been so much better had it not been clearly on a Native reservation and selling Native artifacts. The optics of four white people destroying a bunch of Native American memorabilia and art is not great, and it has no plot relevance, so it could just have easily been any other roadside attraction without the helping of racism. The constant fat jokes are unnecessary and cruel. Sure, Rule #1 is Cardio, but fat people are just as capable of being fit runners as thin people, and I definitely know some sedentary skinny folks who would fall behind in a hurry. I’ve seen worse in movies that have come out this year, though, so clearly Hollywood still needs to get its shit together and hire me instead of the latest mediocre white man. Come on, I’m right here.
Not perfect but still fun: that’s Zombieland. “So until next time, remember: Cardio, Seatbelts, and this really has nothing to do with anything but a little sunscreen never hurt anybody.”
Scarlett O’Hairdye out.
— Scarlett O’Hairdye