By all accounts, I shouldn't have liked Zombieland as it parodies my beloved zombie genre mainly by ignoring every one of its central themes, ideas and conventions. Rather than a day, night or week of the dead, Zombieland plays more like a road movie about a family of Depression-era, hobo children grifting their way across the country while being chased by--in this case undead, and blood-spewing--shopkeepers, rubes, and train conductors. In fact, outside of the very beginning, and a fairly satisfying slaughter at the end, the zombies play almost no role at all and the gore was tepid at best. Unlike Shaun of the Dead which stands alone as both a perfect zombie film and perfect zombie film parody, Zombieland is simply a comedy with some zombies. Where Shaun got all its laughs from dealing crisply from the Romero deck with a dash of a British comedy of manners, Zombieland owes much more to the work of a certain comedic actor--who makes a hilarious cameo appearance as himself about halfway through the movie-- than anything the horror genre has ever produced. The film is more early Ivan Reitman and John Landis, than Romero, but that's hardly a bad thing. At a lean 80 minute running time, Zombieland was like a cinematic bit of Halloween mini-candy: not too much, sweet, chewy, easily consumable and arriving just in time for the season.
While it may have been a brief treat that was mostly a funny and thoughtless romp, there is one large caveat, one interesting idea, that I think warrants its inclusion in the zombie canon. The film itself may not have even been totally aware of it, but its comedic pedigree and complete lack of any sense of doom or danger, makes Zombieland the first movie in the genre to focus entirely on not just how much fun a zombie apocalypse would be, but also make the case for how vastly improved this nation would be by a plague of the undead. There has always been some element of wish fulfillment in apocalyptic film, as who doesn't take at least some pleasure in seeing this stinking society and species spit out its last gasps, and what's more who wouldn't want to emerge unscathed from the ruins to enjoy all the benefits of a newly depopulated American landscape? (And If you haven't had similar thoughts, you've clearly never had to walk across 34th St. in Manhattan.) This film takes that nugget of adolescent eschatological fantasy and makes the explicit case that the only possible way for the life of the American beta-male to ever become tolerable is through cannibal holocaust.
Played here by Jesse Eisenberg, doing his virginal-neurotic thing again, "Columbus" certainly wasn't doing or amounting to anything great before the end of the world, and is depicted as something of a stand-in for the audience and screen-writers presumably, you know those geeks who stay in Friday nights and watch zombie movies, or spend Saturday morning writing about them. You see, contemporary American society has so very little to offer those quiet, sensitive souls, whereas The Zombie Apocalypse has so much. For starters, the death and putrefaction of almost every other human will immediately give you the opportunity to meet and hang out with much cooler people, like Woody Harrelson, and more importantly, you'd now have a definite chance with all those hot girls who previously wouldn't give you a second look back when most people still had faces that weren't partially eaten. Just the fact that you're both still breathing is a perfect ice-breaker, and all those other assholes who are the secret bane of the existence of every smart, sensitive guy are finally fucking dead, or deadish, so you can fill them with the all the .12 gauge buckshot you've long wished you could.
In Zombieland, the Plague is just the opportunity to live out all of those teenage fantasies that exist just beneath the facade of reasonable, lawful, civilized behavior. Namely, zombies would give us the opportunity for the completely guilt-free indulgence of things like playing with guns, shooting people, hitting them with baseball bats, driving drunk, destroying property, looting, squatting, and almost every other kind of hilarious and gratifying mayhem one could think of. So basically, Zombieland is a lot like Americaland, except you--the shy, nice guy--get to be captain of the team, pull off the big win, and get the girl, all totally consequence-free. Bring on the walking corpses please.