There are so many streaming options available these days, and so many conflicting recommendations, that it’s hard to see through all the crap you could be watching. Each Friday, The Verge’s Cut the Crap column simplifies the choice by sorting through the overwhelming multitude of movies and TV shows on subscription services, and recommending a single perfect thing to watch this weekend.
What to watch
Zombieland, a 2009 horror-comedy directed by Ruben Fleischer and written by Deadpool and Deadpool 2 screenwriters Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick. Jesse Eisenberg stars as “Columbus,” one of the few survivors of a worldwide zombie apocalypse sparked by a virulent strain of mad cow disease. (In this world, the humans call themselves by the cities they’re most attached to, to avoid potentially disruptive emotional bonds.) Though Columbus prides himself on being a capable loner with a list of strict dos and don’ts, while out on the road, he bends his own rules as he joins forces with surly Tallahassee (Woody Harrelson) and con-artist sisters Wichita (Emma Stone) and Little Rock (Abigail Breslin). Together, the band heads west to an amusement park they’ve heard is a zombie-free zone.
Why watch now?
Because Jim Jarmusch’s new comedy The Dead Don’t Die is opening in select theaters this weekend.
A veteran American independent filmmaker best known for offbeat, poetic, little slice-of-life pictures like Down by Law and Night on Earth, Jarmusch has occasionally brought his deadpan sensibility to genre pieces, like the Western Dead Man, the gangster movie Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai, and the twisted vampire romance Only Lovers Left Alive. In The Dead Don’t Die, Jarmusch’s Paterson star Adam Driver and his Broken Flowers star Bill Murray play small-town cops who are more irritated than terrified when their friends and neighbors start transforming into mindless, murdering ghouls. The film works the standard elements of a zombie story into a wry commentary on modern American life, depicting a country where the citizenry and the authorities alike seem to be watching bemusedly as everything deteriorates around them.
There’s nothing new about using zombies for social commentary, or for comedy. George Romero’s influential zombie movies Night of the Living Dead and Dawn of the Dead had moments of dark humor and barbed satire, and Dan O’Bannon’s irreverent 1985 splatter-fest The Return of the Living Dead practically pioneered a new subgenre, the “zom-com.” Traits of the zom-com include self-aware riffing on Romero’s original schtick — the shambling undead, the spreading plague, the emphasis on brains — alongside a focus on the perverse fantasy of living in an emptied-out world. Zom-com examples from the 21st century include Warm Bodies, Shaun of the Dead, and Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, among many, many others. These quasi-parodies have become a way to indulge in all the violence and cynicism of a zombie story without completely bumming out the audience.
Zombieland has been the most successful of the bunch, at least at the box office. Made for a relatively hefty $23 million — quite a lot of money for a hyper-gory R-rated movie that isn’t based on any preexisting franchise — the film earned more than $100 million worldwide, and will be getting a belated sequel this October, with all four of the main characters returning. Theatergoers in 2009 responded positively to the picture’s comic timing and conversational approach, with Eisenberg’s narration as Columbus treating the viewers like confidants. Though it’s incredibly bloody, Zombieland feels appealingly low-stakes, in large part because the hero is so nonchalant. The story is as much about whether Columbus will hook up with Wichita as it is about who’ll still be alive when the credits roll.
Who it’s for
Anyone tired of dreary, pessimistic zombie apocalypses.
There are a lot of ways Zombieland could’ve gone wrong. Rheese and Wernick’s script (similar to their Deadpool films) adopts a kind of smart-ass frat-boy tone at times, with jokes about “fatties” and irritable bowel syndrome, and multiple uses of the word “bitch” to describe women who won’t play nice. Yet the movie never comes across as too mean or too ugly. Instead, Fleischer’s zippy pace and Rheese and Wernick’s clever story-structure — which starts in the middle of the action, then fills in key details later, often via amusing little digressions — proves both disarming and ingratiating, if only because it shows how the filmmakers respect the audience’s savviness about zombie conventions.
It also helps that Fleischer gets to work with such an amazing cast — including, presciently, a hilarious surprise cameo by an actor who also appears in Jarmusch’s The Dead Don’t Die. Breslin and Harrelson were already Oscar nominees before they made Zombieland, and since the movie came out, Harrelson has been nominated twice more, Eisenberg once, and Stone three times (with one win, for La La Land). Zombieland starts with just Columbus, then adds others at a measured pace, giving each character — and each of these talented actors — the screen-time to show some personality.
This ultimately serves the film’s theme, which is about what it means to be a living human and not an undead monster. Zombieland introduces some variations on zombie lore by having its flesh-eating beasties be speedy and smart. But the movie’s biggest twist is that it’s oddly hopeful. It really buys into one of Columbus’ key rules for survival: “Enjoy the little things.”
Where to see it
Netflix. The original zom-com, The Return of the Living Dead, is also available to stream, for free (with commercials), on Tubi and Vudu.