Putting aside the monstrous thirst for flesh, a zombie is essentially halfway between a living human and a rotting corpse, animated but staggering around without much grace, a desiccation disguised as a person. Zombieland: Double Tap occupies a similar space in the world of sequels. As a decade-later follow-up to 2009’s irreverent horror-comedy Zombieland, it isn’t an entry in an active franchise. It’s more like an 1980s-style cheapie retread, disguised as a more respectable legacy sequel.
Given the endless (and mostly basic) references to both pop culture and the original Zombieland, it wouldn’t be out of character for Zombieland: Double Tap to lay out this sequel-as-zombie parallel itself. The script (by Dave Callaham, Rhett Reese, and Paul Wernick) occasionally points out the film’s potential mustiness: Columbus (Jesse Eisenberg) narrates a direct thank-you to the audience upfront, acknowledging that viewers have “many choices in zombie entertainment.” Later, Wichita (Emma Stone) chides Tallahassee (Woody Harrelson) for reviving his old catchphrase (“Nut up or shut up,” for those with hazy memories of the original film). But for much of its running time, the movie is uncomfortably satisfied with recreating the dynamics of the funny, sometimes affecting, first film.
Zombieland: Double Tap downgrades the formula to sometimes funny, and not especially affecting. It takes place 10 years after the original, which feels like a grudging necessity to account for Wichita’s sister Little Rock (Abigail Breslin) aging from childhood to adulthood. Beyond that inconvenience, and a half-baked idea of “evolving” zombies, the movie feels like it’s taking place about six months after Zombieland. Columbus, Wichita, Little Rock, and Tallahassee have maintained their makeshift, post-apocalyptic family unit, with Columbus and Wichita settling into a couple’s routine (or rut), and Tallahassee serving as an overbearing father figure to Little Rock.
At the beginning of the movie, the quartet holes up in the White House, rummaging through presidential mementos. In their quasi-familial tension, Double Tap comes across an interesting idea: because these characters must stick together in a world overrun by zombies, their social structures have been rearranged. Little Rock has no access to friends her own age. And for that matter, neither does Tallahassee, who instead treats his surrogate daughter as both a little girl and a faithful zombie-killing sidekick. (His gifts for her are guns, always guns.) Meanwhile, Wichita finds it hard to achieve domestic bliss with Columbus when they have to cling to domesticity in order to survive.
Instead of developing these ideas into comic situations, or thinking them through in creatively dramatic ways, the writers use them to hastily hit the same story beats Zombieland covered. Little Rock and Wichita separate from the group, just like they did in Zombieland. Then Little Rock separates from Wichita, and everyone sets out on a road trip to find her. She may be headed for a zombie-free commune, akin to the zombie-free amusement park from the end of the first movie, except that the writers take a series of sour, mystifying jabs at the idea of young people gathering together in peace. Finally, a Hollywood movie with the guts to take on the scourge of pacifism!
None of this prevents Double Tap from scoring some laughs, though it has to work harder for fewer of them. What felt like a fresh combination of characters 10 years ago — Eisenberg’s fussy nerdiness, Harrelson’s sensitivity-masking bravado, Stone’s no-nonsense sarcasm — now comes across as repetitive shtick. The best the movie can do is add new shtick to the mix, courtesy of Madison (Zoey Deutch), a young woman Columbus and Tallahassee meet at a mall.
Everything about Madison is a broad caricature of a ditzy blonde: she dresses primarily in pink, she runs her mispronounced words together with a semi-lockjawed form of vocal fry, and she’s easily delighted. But the clichés get elevated as Deutch plays dumb with a zest that recalls Anna Faris’ fearless daffiness. Deutch’s performance turns Madison into a natural, possibly accidental optimist who’s more endearing than the leads.
As before, a trip through Zombieland entails lots of set piece detours. One of Double Tap’s best sustained sequences starts with an insultingly blatant rip-off of a memorable throwaway gag from Shaun of the Dead. Director Ruben Fleischer and the writers elaborate on this theft, then play it straight into an impressively choreographed single-take (or, more likely, simulated single-take) slapstick zombie fight, with Eisenberg, Stone, Harrelson, and newcomer Rosario Dawson shooting and dodging through multiple rooms of a garishly decorated Elvis-themed motel.
In this scene and several others, Zombieland: Double Tap works as an agreeable time-waster, trading on the no longer novel, but still reliably amusing sight and sound of Jesse Eisenberg thrown into combat with the undead. But apart from the unsinkable Deutch, the movie’s women don’t fare as well. Wichita and especially Little Rock make nonsensical, sequel-driven decisions throughout, mostly serving the male characters’ stories, which aren’t especially strong either. When the group reaches that silly commune, the filmmakers again trip over a promising development: maybe these four people are too neurotic, sarcastic, and disagreeable to live in harmony with peaceful hippies.
Or, the movie then counter-suggests, maybe they should just show up to crack some cheap jokes and fight another horde of super-zombies. At times, Double Tap does recapture the original film’s tossed-off delights. It’s been revived with so many of the original actors and filmmakers for that express purpose. But this particular sequel suggests that in another 10 years, there won’t be much left to reanimate.