‘Zombieland’ superb mixture of over-the-top gore, comedy

Posted Oct. 08, 2009, at 6:33 p.m.
Last modified Jan. 30, 2011, at 11:57 a.m.
Jesse Eisenberg stars in Columbia Pictures' ZOMBIELAND.
Jesse Eisenberg stars in Columbia Pictures' ZOMBIELAND.

In theaters

ZOMBIELAND, directed by Ruben Fleischer, written by Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick, 81 minutes, rated R.

The new Ruben Fleischer movie, “Zombieland,” is No. 1 at the box office — and unlike so many present-day horror movies (I’m talking to you, Rob Zombie), it deserves every bit of the $25 million it raked in over its opening weekend.

This spoof on the zombie genre literally and figuratively is killer. It’s laugh-out-loud funny, the gore is beautifully over-the-top, Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick’s wicked script is laced with a cutting wit, and the acting across the board is superb.

Yes, superb. Whenever you’re dealing with a genre that walks the line between two genres — horror and comedy — don’t underestimate the talent it takes to successfully pull that off. It’s not as easy as it seems. Essentially, you’re asking your cast to play it up when the humor is high, and to keep it reasonably serious when the gutting gets rough.

All involved do that here, which is trickier than you might expect since nobody here shows their hand. Unlike, say, the “Scary Movie” franchise, the actors in “Zombieland” keep their tongues planted firmly in their cheeks. They never wink at the screen, and that alone gives the production a boost.

The film begins in a post-apocalyptic world in which most of the human race has been overcome by zombies. Hungry zombies. Well-fed zombies. A hot-mess slew of zombies, none of whom ever would qualify as a MENSA candidate, but all of whom score points for their robust appetites and, in many cases, their impressive cardiovascular fitness.

Naturally, some humans survive, starting with a young man who is called Columbus (Jesse Eisenberg), because that’s his hometown. We know a few things about him. He’s had a sorry home life — his parents were shut-ins. He’s something of a dork — but a shrewd survivor armed with a handful of lifesaving rules. He’s also a virgin who has yet to make it to first base — and he’s eager to put a stop to that.

Next up is Tallahassee (Woody Harrelson, neatly reviving his career), a Twinkie-loving cowboy who comes upon Columbus and reluctantly decides to share the troubled road with him. Meanwhile, two scamming sisters enter the picture in Wichita (Emma Stone) and Little Rock (Abigail Breslin), who have their share of trust issues, as Columbus and Tallahassee find out when all form a team.

Surprises abound, particularly in an inspired cameo not to be revealed here. Action drives the movie as swiftly as its undercurrent of humor, with some of the best scenes taking place at a California amusement park, whose rides offer plenty of clever ways to off the zombies — but also to become trapped by them. And yet what really moves the movie forward and allows it to gel into something special is the cast, all of whom have such undeniable chemistry (you’ll never look at Breslin the same way again), we can only hope for what must come next: “Zombieland II.”

Grade: A

On DVD and Blu-ray disc

DRAG ME TO HELL, directed by Sam Raimi, written by Raimi and Ivan Raimi, 96 minutes, rated PG-13.

Apparently, the foreclosure crisis is worse than anyone imagined. According to Sam Raimi’s “Drag Me to Hell,” Satan is involved, which poor Christine (Alison Lohman), a loan officer in California, learns at the start in a series of events that go horribly (and hilariously) wrong.

Raimi co-wrote the script with his brother, Ivan, and what they created is a return to form for the director, who in some circles is best known for his “Spider-Man” movies than he is for his early cult films, including such camp horror classics as “The Evil Dead” series, “Army of Darkness” and the lesser-known “Within the Woods.”

Raimi also directed 1998’s terrific “A Simple Plan,” 1990’s “Darkman” and 2000’s supernatural thriller “The Gift,” all of which get to the breadth of what he’s capable of achieving onscreen. Sure, a few stinkers litter his backyard (“For Love of the Game,” anyone?), but when Raimi directs, it’s mostly good.

“Drag Me to Hell” is a case in point. Armed with a delicious sense of humor, the film mirrors “Zombieland” in that it almost is enough to erase the memory of “Halloween II” forever from your mind. And yes, Zombie, I’m still talking to you. So deal with it.

What we get in “Drag Me to Hell” is a horror tale told well.

Sweet-natured Christine is jonesing for a job promotion. Faced with some pretty stiff competition in a vicious co-worker, she decides to delight her boss by turning down an elderly woman (Lorna Raver) who no longer can afford the payments on her house. At once hurt and infuriated, the woman falls to her knees, glares at Christine with her bum eye, waves some voodoo hoodoo her way, and puts a curse on Christine that wreaks havoc on her life over the next three days.

With Justin Long as her bewildered boyfriend Clay, Christine is forced to battle a bevy of Beelzebub beasties, all of which want to steal her soul away into a crypt of fiery rottenness. How will she fight back? That would involve this vegetarian slaughtering small animals, her participation in ground-shaking seances and a whole host of other unmentionables that often are played as much for laughs as they are for horror.

This is a movie about backbone, and if Christine is going to keep her soul, she’s going to have to find hers, usually while caked in mud or some other form of goo. What ensues is a solid horror movie that features such big laughs you come away wishing that most comedies were consistently as funny and as bright.

Grade: B+

WeekinRewind.com is the site for Bangor Daily News film critic Christopher Smith’s blog, DVD giveaways and movie reviews. Smith’s reviews appear Fridays and weekends in Lifestyle, as well as on bangordailynews.com. He may be reached at Christopher@weekinrewind.com.

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