'Zombieland'

Film benefits from the comedy styles of Harrelson and Eisenberg even when the script runs thin.

By now there have been quite enough zombie comedies to constitute a little subgenre of their own. If “Zombieland” doesn’t grade at the head of its class — the valedictorian still being “Shaun of the Dead” — this lively splatstick item is nonetheless way above the remedial likes of “Zombie Strippers,” to name one among many recent lower-budgeters. Benefiting from the very different but very appealing comedy styles of Woody Harrelson and Jesse Eisenberg even when the script’s wit runs thin, this should be catnip to jaded genre fans, with decent niche theatrical returns and solid long-term ancillary biz signaled.

Opening is brash but crass, with a nebbishly young loner (Eisenberg, “Adventureland,” “The Squid and the Whale”) detailing his list of survival strategies in a post-human world turned ravenously undead by a virus. Those bits of advice (some as simple as buckling up) are rather too cutely utilized as onscreen text, comically illustrated during the gory opening credits.

We also soon get a flashback to the protag’s own first experience with zombiedom, when a hot neighbor (Amber Heard) in distress invaded his agoraphobic virginal privacy, kindling romantic hopes until she tried to eat his flesh the morning after.

After a subsequent altercation leaves him sans vehicle, the kid gets picked up by Tallahassee (Harrelson), who dubs him Columbus, since that’s where he’s theoretically headed (hoping his parents are still alive in Ohio). Tallahassee prefers to go by place names, because real ones get you too emotionally attached.

Tallahassee is the fully liberated id to Columbus’ over-cautious fraidy-cat, a cowboy road warrior who enjoys gratuitously stomping zombie arse. But both are hoodwinked when they run across two young sisters in apparent extremis, Wichita (“Superbad’s” Emma Stone) and 12-year-old Little Rock (Abigail Breslin, edging into teenagerdom).

At gunpoint, the girls alleviate the boys of their SUV and weapons, though the four soon form a reluctant alliance, with Columbus crushing on Wichita and Tallahassee taking a fatherly shine to Little Rock. As they head westward from their Texas starting point — chasing rumors of a zombie-free theme park outside L.A. — not a lot happens, really, though Ruben Fleischer’s direction is slick and busy. Eventually, they get to Hollywood, grab a map of stars’ homes, and settle in at the luxurious manse of Tallahassee’s hero, Bill Murray (playing himself in an amusing extended cameo).

Screenplay by Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick (of Spike TV series’ “Invasion Iowa” and “The Joe Schmo Show”) has scattered funny lines and situations. But too often the humor leans more yee-haw than clever. Luckily, the stars delight even when their lines don’t: Eisenberg’s often inspired neurotic dithering recalls the likes of early Gene Wilder, while Harrelson again proves himself an actor willing to go out on any limb (even dancing to the “Ghostbusters” theme) for goofy effect. Harrelson’s unexpected line readings and reactions sometimes elevate “Zombieland” to a level of inspired nonsense worthy of “Shaun.”

Stone and Breslin are OK in straight roles. Design/tech packaging is excellent.

Zombieland

Production

A Sony Pictures Entertainment release of a Columbia Pictures presentation in association with Relativity Media of a Pariah production. Produced by Gavin Polone. Executive producers, Ezra Swerdlow, Paul Wernick, Rhett Reese, Ryan Kavanaugh. Directed by Ruben Fleischer. Screenplay, Rhett Reese, Paul Wernick.

Crew

Camera (Deluxe color, Panavision widescreen), Michael Bonvillain; editors, Peter Amundson, Alan Baumgarten; music, David Sardy; production designer, Maher Ahmad; art director, Austin Gorg; set designer, Timothy D. O'Brien; set decorator, Gene Serdena; costume designer, Magali Guidasci; sound (Dolby Digital/SDDS/DTS), Mary H. Ellis; supervising sound editor, Kami Asgar; re-recording mixers, Tateum Kohut, Greg Orloff; visual effects supervisor, Paul Linden; visual effects, Zoic Studios, CIS Vancouver, Logan, Encore Hollywood; makeup effects prosthetic designer, Tony Gardner; stunt coordinators, G.A. Aguilar, Jeffrey Lee Gibson; assistant director, Kim Winther; second unit director, George Aguilar; casting, John Papsidera. Reviewed at Century 9, San Francisco, Sept. 23, 2009. (In Fantastic Fest, Austin.) MPAA Rating: R. Running time: 87 MIN.

With

Tallahassee - Woody Harrelson Columbus - Jesse Eisenberg Wichita - Emma Stone Little Rock - Abigail Breslin 406 - Amber Heard Himself - Bill Murray Clown Zombie - Derek Graf

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