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Just when I thought that there wasn't much more to be squeezed out of the zombie movie fad along comes the screenplay for Zombieland and convinces me that there's still great stories that can be told about the walking dead.
If you were like me before I read the Zombieland script you were likely wondering if all that needed to be said about zombie situational comedy was already said and done in 2004's Shaun of the Dead. I mean, just how much humor can anyone squeeze out of shambling corpses that rise up and want to eat the flesh of the living? Dubiously I went into reading the Zombieland script with those thoughts but by the end I had seen the light: in the hands of capable writers like Zombieland's Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick there's a lot of humor still left to be mined about the zombie apocalypse.
Set for release on October 9, 2009, Zombieland is being directed by Ruben Fleischer, a guy with a short list of TV directing credits to his C.V. I don't know if Fleischer is gonna knock this script out of the park or hit a foul ball but on paper Zombieland rocks. Really, it rocks. Forget any worries about Zombieland cribbing off of Shaun of the Dead; if anything, Zombieland treats its use of zombies like the way Ghostbusters treated its supernatural apparitions, and if the final film is executed right Zombieland could crossover and find a wider audience than the horror peeps interested in seeing the latest z-flick.
The version of the script that I read dates back to September 2007 placing it before the writer's strike hit Hollywood. Based on the trailer that came out last month it looks like there's been some changes to Reese and Wernick's original draft, such as building up the two main female characters (played by Emma Stone and Abigail Breslin). The action that takes place in the theme park is new too, so I don't know how the movie relates to the older draft that I read. Know that before you go further into reading this review.
Zombieland begins by introducing us to Jesse Eisenberg's character, originally called Flagstaff in the script but now the name seems to have been changed to Columbus. (Don't be weirded out: every main character in the Zombieland script is refered to by their hometown for a reason. Trust me.) It's one month after the zombie apocalypse started and civilization is gone, survivors are scarce and the living dead are always hungry. In his new life Columbus is a scared coward, a guy who lives in this new horrific world (the "zombieland" of the title) by a list of rules that we're reminded of, like always keep your ammo dry by putting it in ziploc baggies because in zombieland you never know when one of the ghouls are about to make an appearance and it's raining windshield wiper fluid (another "don't worry, it makes sense when you see it" moment.) So far Columbus' rules and his heightened level of fear have kept him alive long enough so he could cross paths with Albuquerque (Woody Harrelson's character, now called Tallahassee), a guy that is not afraid to kick some zombie ass. The two are making their way east to different destinations but agree that there's safety in numbers and so make the drive together across the western states in Tallahassee's Escalade. Then they cross paths with Emma Stone and Abigail Breslin's characters, Wichita and Little Rock, which spins them for a loop in a spoiler-ish way. Getting back to something I said earlier, in this '07 draft the women are secondary characters and the guys are our main heroes, but after looking at that trailer and recognizing locations that come into play later on in the script, it looks like the Wichita and Little Rock roles have now been played up as much as Columbus and Tallahassee's after the ladies are introduced. I don't know the extent of these changes to the Zombieland shooting script so I can't say how much of Wichita/Little rock's introduction has been changed or how their expanded roles now play out in the film, but it suggests to me that a good chunk of what happens in acts two and three has been retooled to give the female characters more screen time.
Revealing more story details about Reese/Wernick draft can't do the movie any good and neither for you. Here's why: the Zombieland screenplay really is a lot like describing a comedy screenplay in that if I describe specific events that happen or situations that the heroes find themselves in, it will likely blow the gag when you see the show. And I love this script; it's got great funny dialogue, funny situations and some really creatively amusing solutions to solving problems arising from a zombie apocalypse. For instance there's a scene that's briefly flashed in the trailer showing our four leads disposing of a freshly killed zombie body over the side of a balcony that if you knew the set-up and what's gone on before, totally ruins the moment. I'm also pretty sure that Fleisher must have had to make changes to those earlier scenes since much of the humor involved a certain well-known celebrity whose unfortunate real-life situation would likely discolor the comedy of what goes down now. Look, just imagine it this way: you really didn't want to know that there was a 40-foot tall Stay-Puft marshmallow man at the end of Ghostbusters. The same rule applies here and when Zombieland opens and I know how those moments play out along with the rest of you, I'd then feel OK with revealing how the writers originally intended things to play out because it was awfully funny on the page. And that's the case with the overall script: it's peppered with great jokes, jokes that if I set them up for you it will spoil the movie. That's not gonna happen to you on my watch.
What you should be walking away from this review with is that I believe the original Zombieland script has all the potential to be a terrific comedy that just happens to involve zombies the way The Blues Brothers is a terrific comedy that just happens to be a car chase movie, or the original Caddyshack was a terrific comedy that masqueraded itself as a sports movie. Tallahassee's dialogue is meant for an actor like Woody saying it and I can't think of a better guy to play that part. Eisenberg's Columbus could be played by Michael Cera, Jonah Hill...he's one of those interchangable young-and-nerdy-twentysomething actors. The script doesn't call for him to be much else than the wrong guy in the wrong situation but his rules for staying alive and how well they work to save his life separate him from other similar horror-comedy heroes like Evil Dead's Ash or Simon Pegg's Shaun. Breslin's Little Rock has some juicy comedic moments with Harrelson that play off their two decade age difference and I hope those stay to make it in the final cut because they're gold. As for Stone, she's probably the least served of the four principal actors. Her Wichita does have a couple of fun lines and moments but her character comes close to serving the same kind of part that Sigourney Weaver played to Bill Murray's Peter Venkman in Ghostbusters. (And as a final surprise and spoiler to those that stuck around to the end, I hope that Tallahassee's Sigourney Weaver joke is still in the final version of the script.)
Hey man, I'm pumped to see if Fleischer pulled the potential of Reese and Wernick's Zombieland screenplay off. Wouldn't it be great to have another wonderful comedic surprise to go with The Hangover for the latter part of 2009? You bet it would.