Friday, February 12, 2010

Nut Up or Shut Up

One rainy Saturday afternoon about a year ago, I happened to turn on the TV and found myself watching a film about a hungover English slacker who awakens one morning to a London in chaos. He stumbles across the street to a convenience store, not noticing the rubbish-strewn streets, the bleeding bodies, or the blood-streaked glass of the store coolers. He and his roommate make light of a seemingly drunken check-out girl stumbling about in their garden still wearing her slightly askew name tag, not realizing what's happened, despite all the mounting evidence, until she tries to take a bite out of them.

What drew me in and kept my attention through Sean of the Dead was its amazingly refreshing take on a tired and familiar film genre: the zombie movie. The inherent problem with zombie films, going all the way back to Dawn of the Dead, was always that zombies were incredibly lethargic, shuffling along in that stiff-limbed, sleepwalker manner. That's why, after all, when we're tired we say we feel like zombies. In recent years filmmakers seemed to be trying to address this issue because how threatening was a monster that a small child could easily outrun? Though the zombies in Sean of the Dead are still pretty much of the stumbling variety, most updates to the genre, like the Dawn of the Dead remake and Will Smith's I Am Legend, which is itself a remake of Charleton Heston's Omega Man, feature frenzied, sprinting zombies that attack from all angles in gangs. They're ravenous not just for human brains but human flesh of any kind, and will stop at nothing to turn the remaining population into their personal smorgasborg. They still, however, cannot drive cars, operate machinery or, one would assume, blog.

I'm not fan-boy geek enough to have known that the cast of Sean worked together on a popular British TV series, so that when they all run into each other in someone's yard while trying to elude the zombies I didn't get the joke. But the combination of humor and flat-out violence was exhilarating, with wonderful moments, like when Sean finally realizes the whole city is affected and phones his mother to check on her. She tells him some men tried to break into the house, and Sean asks her, with a lot of hesitation, if she noticed anything strange about them. "Well," she responds, "they were a bit bitey."

Encouraged that it was possible to breathe life into such a tired horror staple, I rented Zombieland and was no less impressed. Right from the opening of the film we're dropped into the reality of a world ravaged by zombies. We see little girls in their blood-stained princess dresses chasing and trying to chomp their fleeing mother. There's enough epic comic splattering violence to satisfy even frat-boy tastes -- these zombies not only are cannibals but appear to have upset tummies, too, vomiting buckets of streaming blackish blood -- but a good dose of intelligence as well. We're introduced to Columbus, the excellent Jesse Eisenberg, who was so good a few years ago in The Squid and the Whale (which equated his character's constantly bickering parents with the mortal aquatic enemies named in the title). Eisenberg is like a more nuanced Michael Cera, bringing credibility to the role of a college student whose carefully crafted rules of survival amid the zombie onslaught is like a checklist of all the horror film tropes that so often lead to monster-induced casualties. Beware of bathrooms, because zombies know where you're most vulnerable (in a toilet stall). Know your way out (you never know when a zombie will pop out of the woodwork). Always double tap (the zombie is never really dead after the first shotgun blast -- go back and finish him off). When he meets up with the bad-ass Tallahassee, played by the brilliant Woody Harrelson, we're quickly enmeshed in a buddy picture (another film genre pretty much exhausted until now) that's funny, surprising, touching, exhilarating, and scary, and I'm very pleased to learn that a sequel is already in the works. In a movie landscape that's crowded with insufferable dreck like Valentine's Day and the tediously chaste Twilight franchise, it's nice to have something to look forward to.

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