You probably already got the memo, but zombies are cool now. A lot of the most painful hipster nonsense surrounding the undead can be blamed on Max Brooks, who wrote both the fake instructional Zombie Survival Guide and the novel World War Z. Probably some of the blame can also be laid on Zack Snyder's head, for directing the dire remake of Dawn of the Dead. And quite a lot of it attaches to Simon Pegg and Edgar Wright for the wonderful Shaun of the Dead. Whoever's fault it is, though, the fact remains that zombies are cool. Zombie-related merchandise is everywhere and, since zombie movies are virtually guaranteed successes, they're being cranked out at a rate of knots. The revival started in 2004 and, somehow, it hasn't ended yet.
But if there was any justice in the world, the release of Zombieland would mark the exact moment everyone realised how incredibly stale this genre has become. Because it's not a zombie movie, nor is it a horror movie. It's one of those sub-Apatow films about a neurotic misogynist nerd who, somehow, incredibly, ends up with a beautiful woman on his arm for no good reason. The zombies -- who, actually, aren't even zombies, despite the film's insistence on using that word constantly throughout -- are never a credible threat. They're just backdrop. They could be anything. They're just there because it's cool. Zombieland takes the most basic, superficial elements of zombie movies, and a stack of the most tired cliches, and jams them into a story about an awful manchild who never had any friends or understanding of how to relate to another human being eventually learns to get over himself. Sort of.
What's really difficult to work out is whether we're ever supposed to like or empathise with "Columbus". Given that he's the main character and also narrates most of the film, it'd be nice if he had some redeeming qualities, but he doesn't. In place of a character, he has a string of cliched quirks: he plays WoW, he doesn't like going out, he's a bit germphobic, he's scared of clowns, and he doesn't understand that "hot girls" are actually people. And he's the most fully developed character in the movie. Zombieland also gives us "Tallahassee", the obligatory hardman with a heart of goo and a sad backstory about a dead son we'll only bother to hear about for five minutes; "Witchita", the love interest for Columbus who, we're told, is smart and independent but barely acts like it; and "Little Rock", Witchita's kid sister who's just there to remark on how she doesn't get the cultural references everyone else insists on making.
(In case it's not blindingly obvious, I find it intensely irritating that the characters in Zombieland aren't given actual names, just places they're trying to get to. It's not cute.)
None of these characters really develop over the course of the movie. Columbus does a little bit, just enough to provide a sickening closing monologue on the nature of humanity, but that's no hero's journey. And he's no hero. His motivation for most of the film seems to be finding a girl who'll let him touch her, and that's when he can bring himself to stop referring to women as bitches. The film's low point is either when Columbus describes Witchita as "not your typical hot stuck-up bitch" or when she refers to the girls who didn't ask him to the dance in eighth grade as "those bitches," outraged that anyone could ever have found his awful, immature whinging anything less than irresistible. The film's tagline, "nut up or shut up", pretty much sums up the movie's attitude towards women. They're either evil or helpless and in need of rescue.
It's not the worst offender in the sexism stakes, but it's pretty bad. And since Zombieland doesn't have any redeeming qualities, it's hard to ignore. Structurally, the film is all over the place. It has no beginning-middle-end. It has no real conflict, since it utterly fails to ever put any of the characters in any kind of danger. It doesn't even have the good grace to be funny, although it tries desperately, with recurring "jokes" about Tallahassee's love for Twinkies, and the excruciatingly awful Bill Murray cameo. Nothing happens in this movie. It's difficult to summarise the plot, because there wasn't one. Some movies can make that work, but usually only when they have strong characters, relationships, and themes to play with instead. Zombieland has none of the above. It doesn't even have a solid central premise, because the "zombies" in the movie aren't zombies, and "Zombieland", which is used to refer to the post-apocalypse America, is a false conceit because the whole world is overrun with the infected.
The thing is, I wasn't even expecting it to be good. I was expecting it to be your typical post-2004 lazy zombie movie where forgettable characters battle the usual zombie horde and end up saving the day, somehow (or at least surviving to live another one). It's not even that. It's a horrible mess that uses the trappings of zombie movies to disguise an utter lack of ideas, story, or intelligence. It's a waste of time, life, and celluloid.