Like most horror fans, I love zombie movies because they’re fun, gory, and suspenseful. I find the survivalist angle intriguing, too (I often find myself wondering if and how I could survive an initial outbreak of the walking dead. Equipped with my copy of The Zombie Survival Guide I’d like to think at least I’d have a fighting chance. But probably not).
But in the end the zombie films I like best are those that aspire to more than just empty action. Like all good movies, the best zombie films contain underlying social and/or political messages that give them an added dimension and another level on which they can be enjoyed.
I’m not a horror historian, but as far as I can tell the zombie film as social commentary started with George Romero. Broadly, zombies have always been a metaphor for death, but it wasn’t until 1978’s Dawn of the Dead that the walking dead were used to critique concepts like capitalism and unchecked consumer culture (as a sidenote this is why I didn’t like the new Dawn of the Dead as much as the original—the 2004 version is not only too nihilistic, but it removes all the subtext in favor of high-speed, sprinting zombie carnage).
Since Dawn other zombie films have hopped on the bandwagon of zombie apocalypse as societal/cultural critique. The most recent example is the comedic zombie horror of Zombieland (2009). Zombieland tells the story of a group of survivors trying to find their way in the aftermath of the zombie apocalypse. These include 20-something “Columbus” (played by Jesse Eisenburg), a nerdy, World of Warcraft playing recluse; “Tallahassee” (Woody Harrelson), a modern cowboy with an apparent death wish, a sardonic sense of humor and a mean streak a mile wide when it comes to zombies; “Wichita” (Emma Stone), a beautiful, guarded, hard-bitten realist, and “Little Rock” (Abigail Breslin), Wichita’s younger sister and resourceful partner in crime.
Everyone in the group is trying to pick up the pieces of their shattered former lives and cope with the loss of children and parents. As a result they’ve become hard-bitten survivalists, albeit with a sense of humor that keeps the film lively and engaging. Initially distrustful of each other, the group eventually opens up about themselves and their pasts, drops their hard protective outer shells, and becomes a kind of family.
So in and among its enjoyable scenes of carnage (zombies beaten down with baseball bats and banjos, or crushed under the wheels of SUVs), wish-fulfillment fantasies of breaking and entering into celebrities’ sprawling, mostly abandoned mansions (Zombieland features a great Bill Murray as Bill Murray cameo), and Harrelson in one of the most fun, unforgettable, kick-ass roles of his career, what lessons does Zombieland have to teach us?
- The importance of family. Everyone (myself included) likes their “me” time. Sometimes when life kicks us in the teeth we even fancy ourselves as hard-core independents, able to go it wholly alone. But Zombieland reminds us family is permanent (there’s an old saying that you can choose your friends, but not your family) and paramount.
- Enjoy the little things. When Eisenberg first encounters Harrelson on a vehicle strewn wreckage of a highway, the latter is in the midst of a Holy Grail-like quest for … a Twinkie. The quest lasts the whole film. It’s absurd, yeah, but also understandable. Sometimes we’ve got to set our sights a little lower and enjoy the little victories in “the long defeat” (to steal a wonderful phrase from J.R.R. Tolkien) of our lives. Even when the reward is just spongy, cream-filled goodness.
- Don’t get bogged down in material possessions. Zombieland also contains an anti-materialism undercurrent (though the film also features some rather conspicuous Hummer and Cadillac product placement ads…). One particularly fun scene involves Columbus and crew entering a sleazy roadside Indian shop and wreaking destruction on a bunch of trinkets, glassware, and costume jewelry. You can’t take it with you, after all, so stop obsessing about stuff. It’s a message handled with a bit more subtlety and effectiveness in the desolate Pittsburgh shopping mall of Dawn of the Dead, but it bears repeating here, too.
Zombieland delivers these lessons by introducing a literal set of survival rules that pop up throughout the film, all based on best practices for staying alive in a world overrun by flesh-eating zombies. These include “Cardio” (stay in good shape, or the zombies will run you down), and “double tap” (always shoot a zombie a second time in the head, just to make sure, since a fallen zombie will always try to grab your ankle), among many others.
The importance of family. Enjoy the little things. Don’t get bogged down in material goods. Fine rules to live by when zombies—that metaphor of our own mortal coil—lurk at the doorstep, biding their time for life’s inevitable conclusion. So saith Zombieland.
For Halloween fun and a little more, I recommend it.