Cinemagoers have been entertained by the living dead since the earliest eras of cinematic history. George Romero utilised zombies to offer a socio-political subtext in his Dead franchise, Danny Boyle sped up the creatures for his rage-infused post-apocalyptic 28 Days Later…, and Edgar Wright and Simon Pegg crafted a comedic look at the genre with Shaun of the Dead (though the protagonist of that film ridiculed the use of the term “zombie”). 2009’s Zombieland continues the trend of a viral zombie plague wiping out humanity. Penned by television scribes Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick, and helmed by first-time feature film director Ruben Fleischer, this is an assured riff on zombie conventions which allows audiences to view the basic concepts of the genre in a comedic light. Zombieland may heavily borrow from its cinematic ancestors, but the filmmakers had enough verve to keep things fresh and interesting, and the product is a blast of devilish fun that reveals there’s still life left in the densely populated zombie genre.

The zombies in Zombieland are not self-exhumed corpses which have come back from the dead to terrorise the living. Instead, they are plague victims whose brains have melted; leaving nothing but violent, cannibalistic shells. At the beginning of the movie, the epidemic has already swept the globe and has almost infected the entire population. The story is narrated by a guy only known as Columbus (Eisenberg), who admits he’s an unlikely survivor given his phobias and antisocial behaviour. Yet, it is precisely these traits that helped him survive the zombie apocalypse, which he explains in a voice-over as he helpfully states a number of rules he has developed to increase his chances of survival (stay in good cardiovascular shape, make sure a zombie is really dead when you shoot it, always check the back seat of your car, and so on). Columbus is trying to get back to his home town to see a familiar face, and en route he encounters redneck zombie-killer Tallahassee (Harrelson). Tallahassee is headed for Florida, and has two great passions in life: slaughtering zombies and finding an edible Twinkie. Hindering their progress are two grifters, Wichita (Stone) and Little Rock (Breslin), who are on their way to California.

Although the zombie presence always exists in the movie’s peripherals, the majority of Zombieland plays out like a traditional road trip flick – the four diverse characters are heading to a “promised land” that might just be a myth, and along the way they bond and form friendships. Occasionally, of course, there are zombies that the characters are forced to deal with, but, until the climax, they are merely minor nuisances rather than serious obstacles. One particular factor to be appreciated about Zombieland is the fact it does not disregard character development. By no means are these characters fully realised, three-dimensional entities, but neither are they flat caricatures. A solid investment in these individuals is formed, and by the climax it’s possible to actually care about who lives and who dies. Even though virtually every action sequence of the movie can be predicted (like the hero who goes on an apparent suicide mission to save the day), it all feels organic. It’s the same principal as a group of stand-up comedians reiterating their old routines – jokes are more or less the same, but the delivery makes all the difference.

The brawny mixture of comedy and horror keeps the pace for Zombieland fast and furious, and its depiction of a world without rules develops a sense of anarchic wish fulfilment (who hasn’t wanted to grab any Hummer you could hotwire, or snatch free food from an abandoned shop?). Director Fleischer and cinematographer Michael Bonvillain (a J.J. Abrams veteran) approach the material with an anything-goes visual dexterity. This is epitomised during the opening credits sequence which presents an assortment of shots of victims attempting to flee the zombies in slow motion, and manages to emphasise both the terror and comic absurdity of the whole enterprise. Interestingly, the zombies aren’t necessarily played out for laughs; at times, there are genuine shocks that manage to convey the sense that these characters are in serious danger. The humour of the material stems from the heroes’ behaviour during these dire moments, such as Columbus’ cowardice and Tallahassee’s fearlessness and tactlessness. Those behind this movie have openly acknowledged Shaun of the Dead as a key inspiration, but (aside from the comic zombie concept) they are two completely divergent films. For one, the action in Shaun of the Dead was grounded in reality, while Zombieland transpires in an unabashed fantasy world in which old ladies can crush zombies with grand pianos, Looney Tunes style!

Woody Harrelson is a hoot and a half as Tallahassee; essentially the redneck Crocodile Dundee. The actor was given the showiest role in the entire picture, and he clearly relished the opportunity. Jesse Eisenberg’s neurotic shtick (which has served both himself and Michael Cera well of late) is put to terrific use here. While a single-note actor, Eisenberg is an immediately likable protagonist, and his explanations of common-sense survival are dispensed with a delightful comic edge. Emma Stone carries out her duties terrifically as the straight man to the outlandish antics of the male leads, while Abigail Breslin’s work here indicates she should survive the adolescent career phase that usually spells death to child actors.

Zombieland arguably derails during its mid-section when the main characters find themselves in the palatial Beverly Hills mansion of a certain Hollywood actor. The star cameo in this sequence is a hoot, but there are lulls and sputters as the film threatens to run out of gas. While this isn’t a deal breaker thanks in large part to the star who shows up (it’s too delicious to spoil), attention is regrettably directed away from what counts. Thankfully, when the film works, it truly works – it manages to successfully rework familiar elements in a way that simultaneously pokes fun at its zombie predecessors and recognises the need for an underlying sense of dread. It’s predictable and disposable entertainment, yet the pleasures it offers corroborate the importance of a rule Columbus learns via Tallahassee: You gotta enjoy the little things.