‘Zombieland’ creates several cultural parallels

By David Orlikoff

As a society we have come to view certain films as timeless. The Wizard of Oz is as current in some households as the latest Disney venture.  Perhaps that’s because it’s a fantasy film and a witch or winged monkey looks no different in 1939 than 2009. But that doesn’t explain how films like Casablanca and Citizen Kane remain important generations after their historical ramifications have receded to mere tremors.

As a medium, film does an incredible job of preserving things the way they were—which would seem to count against timelessness. But it also has another quality that brings a renewed relevance. What exactly that quality is can be hard to pinpoint. It might be a structure of narrative or some captured essence of humanity, but whatever that timeless quality is, Zombieland starring Jesse Eisenberg and Woody Harrelson definitely doesn’t have it.

The film begins with Eisenberg, whom we learn to call Columbus as he deals with a few zombies and relates the rules of Zombieland. The actual plot comes later, as does the backstory. Quite simply,  Mad Cow turned into Mad Human and society fell apart. It’s a kind of a non-explanation that resents being forced to defend itself when all that’s really going on is a few pretty Hollywood actors running around kicking butt in the zombie apocalypse. “Nut up or shut up” is the catchphrase from resident tough-guy Tallahassee, played by Harrelson. But it has more to do with how we view the film than anything on-screen. Zombieland is best appreciated with the funny bone—anything but the brain, really. It’s not that it’s offensive, Hollywood trash; it just operates on a different level.

It’s a movie very much in the here and now. It’s all pop culture and comedy and forget the future generations. The motif of Columbus’ rules for survival draws a direct cultural parallel to specific brands of geek canon. In print and on the web, there are numerous zombie survival guides.

The film also draws parallels with video games such as Grand Theft Auto and most specifically, Dead Rising.

Zombieland is no Citizen Kane and it doesn’t have to be. It’s funny enough to keep the audience from asking questions while the movie steadily advances. It always delivers a little more than it needs to.

That’s why even though it is definitely one of those stupid movies, it’s also terrific. Comedy and violence mesh here in a hybrid that’s the stuff of your mother’s nightmares. Shaun of the Dead was the successful originator, but it was tainted with British culture and couldn’t rise to the level of so much Hollywood trash. Zombieland is the culmination of two great individual tastes that taste great together: zombies and comedy—and it could only happen like this in America.