Zombieland opens Friday throughout the Triangle

Thirty years ago, George A. Romero tailored his chosen film genrezombie horror moviesinto a critique of American consumerism and social decadence in Dawn of the Dead. Hollywood’s latest zombie flick, Zombieland, is not set inside a shopping mall. But when four survivors of a zombie pandemic begin a trek for utopian refuge, they don’t climb a majestic mountaintop or set up camp on a sandy white beach. Instead, they make tracks for Pacific Playland, a Southern California amusement park where they believe they can re-create Eden in a world gone mad.

Zombieland chronicles the uneasy bond forged between the final foursome, each of whom refers to the others by the name of their respective hometowns to avoid emotional attachments that might need to be severed at a moment’s notice. Columbus (Jesse Eisenberg) lives by a checklist of rules for surviving in Zombieland: Practice good cardio, always double-tap downed zombies, check the backseats of cars before getting in, etc. Teaming with Columbus is Tallahassee (Woody Harrelson), a hard-charging redneck who relishes both his proficiency at killing the undead and the chance to taste just one more Twinkie before he dies, or they all go bad, whichever comes first.

Along the way, they join up with two grifting sisters (Emma Stone and Abigail Breslin) and crash at Bill Murray’s mansion, leading to the film’s best sequence and Murray’s funniest onscreen offering in years. Let’s just say it takes the end of the world for Murray to express regret over Garfield and give us the closest thing we’ll ever see to another Ghostbusters sequel.

Zombieland boasts some nifty art direction and makeup, and director Ruben Fleischer supplies an opening credits sequence cut from the Watchmen cloth, set to the strains of Metallica’s “For Whom the Bell Tolls.” However, it is the performances that carry the film through numerous slow patches and a generally aimless screenplay. Both Eisenberg and Harrelson indirectly spoof prior roles: Harrelson in National Born Killers and Eisenberg in Adventureland, another movie in which his trademark neurotic Nellie comes of age inside an amusement park. And Stone supplies a glimpse of the fine actress she can become once she learns to curb her nervous tics.

As far as zombie comedies go, Zombieland isn’t quite as scary or funny as Shaun of the Dead. But at an efficient 88 minutes, it is a rollicking, amusing diversion from both real-life tribulations and the films (and filmmakers) that wallow in them.