Be it our cognitive capacities or our increased social proclivity, there is something about being human that seems to elevate and separate us from our mammalian cohabiters; even the most cursory glance at man’s literary past would attest to the prevalence, and his general approval, of this distinction. It seems ironic then – given our gift of thought, our head-start to survival – the inordinate amount of time we spend collectively contemplating death. It has always been a popular diversion of man to speculate upon the possible circumstances of his own demise; authors, poets and directors alike compete to achieve the most evocative, scientifically plausible vision of the apocalypse – engaging, but never appeasing, our morbid curiosities. It is this human fascination with death that continues to drive the production of apocalyptic literature. The genre, however, despite its inherent versatility has, as of late, been inexplicably dominated by a single subgenre; modern media has been overrun, as it were, by zombies, and the associated tales of their prospective meals. Zombie-fiction’s recent popularity has enabled contemporary society to identify within it archetypical narrative objects and, as with anything pervasive in pop-culture, has opened itself up to the jabs of satire and parody.
Perhaps the epitome of contemporary zombie-parody, Ruben Fleischer’s Zombieland intends wholly to capture and exploit the archetypical elements of zombie-fiction – and under a broader scope apocalyptic fiction as a whole. Using a cast of misfit survivors, identified solely by their destinations/places of origin, Fleischer addresses, ironically, the global and social consequences of a zombie pandemic. In a mock-scientific tone Fleischer echoes the great apocalyptic writers, attempting to scientifically legitimate the “plague of the 21st century” (Fleischer, 00:18:32) and predict the stages of its progression. Having created the necessary backdrop for his drama, Fleischer narrows focus and begins to dissect the human aspects of his imagined situation; the building blocks of an apocalyptic narrative – the characters’ processes of acceptance, their methods of coping, their links to the past and their aspirations for the future – are introduced and examined, mirroring his predecessors’ successful narrative sequences, while introducing sufficient irony to provoke a comic response. It is this, Fleischer’s combination of praise and scorn, his ability to adopt yet mock the quintessential elements of zombie-fiction that makes Zombieland so effective, both as a parody and as a story in its own right.
The efficacy of serious apocalyptic fiction depends heavily on the plausibility of its likely occurrence; whether it be the RAGE virus contracted from monkeys or an electromagnetic pulse transmitted through cell phones, the cause of the outbreak must be scientifically conceivable, if not authentic. In Fleischer’s film the pandemic is based on Mad Cow Disease (See picture): a well established scenario, easily accessible to a contemporary western audience; when “patient zero t[akes] a bite of a contaminated burger at a Gas N’ Gulp” (00:05:06), “mad cow bec[omes] mad person bec[omes] mad zombie” (Fleischer, 00:18:40).
Bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE): “a fatal neurodegenerative disease in cattle that causes a spongy degeneration in the brain and spinal cord... The disease may be most easily transmitted to human beings by eating food contaminated with the brain, spinal cord or digestive tract of infected carcasses” (Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy)."
The scientific authenticity of this scenario is ironically subverted by the matter -of-fact tone in which the explanation is given; this, in turn, somewhat undermines the traditional necessity for scientific believability. Fleischer’s mock-scientific attitude is later perpetuated by the comical way in which the virus progresses; “when the virus struck, for obvious reasons,” the narrator explains, “the first ones to go were the fatties” (Fleischer, 00:01:33). This conclusion is perfectly logical, and draws upon Darwinian notions of natural selection: overweight people generally have a reduced running – or, more specifically, zombie outrunning – speed; the prediction’s scientific merit is undermined again, however, by Fleischer’s comedic use of the word “fatties” in combination with the slow motion belly-bounce – at which the audience has, via mass media, been previously conditioned to laugh. Drawing continuously on western society’s preconditioned comedy responses Fleischer continues to satirise his predecessors’ reverence for scientific justification. The following scene presents a man being attacked whilst on the toilet: “when [hes] at [his] most vulnerable” (Fleischer, 00:02:18). The biological process of defecation is a necessary action, and assumedly a risky one in a zombie-rich environment; it is, therefore, an inherently funny situation, both logically sound and scientifically based. Fleischer, through use of irony and intrinsically comical elements attempts to undermine apocalyptic literature’s characteristic overemphasis on scientific credibility.
Fleischer, however, does not limit his ironic siege to a single overworked element; instead, he systematically deconstructs a multitude of apocalyptic archetypes. After attacking the overbearingly scientific style in which apocalyptic authors have traditionally written, Fleischer redirects his focus to situational and character based trends. There comes a time in any given zombie-movie, at which the protagonist’s – usually very average – daily life is rudely interrupted by his/her first zombie; after this encounter the protagonist will generally do four things, in no particular order: they will rationalize what they’re seeing, react to the situation, realize what is actually happening and adapt to their new circumstance. This scene, traditionally, is thoroughly unnerving because it signifies the finite, fragile nature of our existence; the viewer relates himself directly to the ordinary protagonist and is terrified by the ease with which normality is shattered. In Fleischer’s Zombieland, however, normality is shattered prior, even, to the zombie attack; Columbus, our protagonist, a self-proclaimed loner, whose chief desire in life is to “find a girl and fall in love” (Fleischer, 00:13:42) is shown comforting his panicked, yet “insanely hot,” neighbour: 406. She explains, over mountain dew, that, prior to her abrupt arrival, she’d been chased by a “homeless man” who, “tried to bite[her]” (00:15:15); after rationalizing his rude, hungry outburst as a side-effect of “drugs,” she falls asleep in his arms and our lonely protagonist appears to be “living the dream” (Fleischer, 00:16:15). He awakes, however, to a hungry, drooling night mare; his girl transformed into a “fucked up little monster” (00:02:50), his perfect night into a “total shitstorm” (00:01:20). This comedic, overly-drastic juxtaposition successfully satirises the traditionally shocking first encounter, evoking a giggle while effectively preserving the structure; this air of mock-calamity is then echoed in Columbus’ reaction. After allowing himself, comically, to be chased, screaming, around the apartment he justifies her ferocity with the classic line “you’re just sick” (00:18:16); upon realizing that 406 is not “just sick” he adapts to the situation, breaks her leg and kills her with a toilet bowl cover – apologising ironically as he does so. Fleischer, through his use of character, juxtaposition and direct allusion, succeeds in undermining the traditional shock-value of first encounters while maintaining the narrative structure. The ungainly protagonist, first rationalises then, reacts and adapts to his unfolding situation, preserving zombie-fiction’s archetypical sequence of events; in Fleischer’s film, however, the audience is eased, more so than thrown, into the zombie-filled, apocalyptic world.
Having cast their characters into this world, perpetually seeking sanctuary from the bleeding, biting hordes, zombie-fiction writers must now strive, for the sake of plot, to keep their protagonists alive – or at least help them cope. Conventionally, any given protagonist is imbued with an innate characteristic that allows them to survive, if not deal with their new environment; traditionally these unfortunates can be separated into thinkers, fighters, team-workers, drinkers and assholes – granted, some survival techniques are more effective than others. Fleischer, well versed in the zombie-arts, is astutely aware of these apocalyptic stock characters and employs them strategically within his own work. Columbus, the nerd-hero, satisfies the need for a lonely, overbearingly cautious intellectual; though he “may seem like an unlikely candidate for survival, with all [his] phobias and irritable bowel syndrome” (Fleischer, 00:05:20) he “ha[s] the advantage of not having any close friends or family” (00:05:30). This notion of the loner appears frequently in apocalyptic fiction: someone who “avoid[s] people like zombies, even before the [are] zombies” (00:07:09); in George Stewart’s Earth Abides, Ish finds solace in his lack of desire for social interaction. “In the old days such things were a handicap to a man[,] now…, they were actually a great advantage” (Stewart, 39); this notion is emphasised, in Zombieland, by the aforementioned attack of 406: “the first time [Columbus] let[s] a girl into [his] life… she tries to eat [him]” (Fleischer, 00:17:51). This scene, aside from confirming the efficacy of loneliness, provides the initial motivation for Columbus’ rules: an overt manifestation of his intelligent, analytical outlook on survival. Throughout the movie – most notably at 00:07:00 – his rules prove an extraordinarily effective tool for survival: his intelligence saves his life. Fleischer, by infusing these rules with humorous pop-culture references and ironic allusions to contemporary society, mocks and undermines the plastic, stock nature of the intelligent survivor figure. Almost as prolific a figure as the thinker, the killer is imperative to both plot progression and ratings; as such, Fleischer cannot avoid his inclusion.
Enter Tallahassee, Columbus’ first companion. Tallahassee, having lost his son Buck, has “nothing left to lose” (00:57:36) and “sets the standard for not to be fucked with” (00:22:00); the obligatory fighter-type fellow, “who looks like Yosemite Sam” (00:31:40), is characterized entirely by his innate ability to “beat wholesale ass” (00:43:19). This practical ability, a staple component of the modern zombie film, is necessarily overworked by apocalyptic writers and, as such, is ironically subverted by Fleischer. By having Tallahassee kill zombies consecutively with a banjo, a softball bat and a pair of garden shears – not out of necessity but for amusement – Fleischer hyperbolises, to the point of disbelief, his killing capacity; the ironic handling of his gruesome talent is emphasised by his continual pursuit of “zombie kill of the week” (00:27:30, 00:41:55): an imaginary title, awarded for the week’s most theatrical act of zombie destruction. The necessity of the fighter figure is undermined by the triviality with which Fleischer presents him; he includes Tallahassee out of necessity, but ironically strays from the fighter’s archetypical demeanour. Brought together by circumstance, Columbus and Tallahassee travel the country ensemble in pursuit of their respective goals. Though not naturally team players, their combined individual merits stand them in good stead; that is, until their car is stolen by the sisters: Wichita and Little Rock.
These two characters represent the archetypical team-workers and, as such, the final target of Fleischer’s trilateral attack on stock characters. Traditionally in apocalyptic fiction, team-players have used their combined ability to achieve security en masse: mutually assured survival. Fleischer, however, in his perpetual struggle to subvert the tradition, portrays the sisters as cut-throat separatists with trust issues. While working together on a familial level, the sisters harbour no interest in the preservation of their fellow humans, justifying grand theft auto with the aphorism: “better you make the mistake of trusting us, than us make the mistake of trusting you” (00:26:05). They pursue ruthlessly their individual goal, allowing companionship only when it serves as means to their desired end. By presenting them in this fashion Fleischer submits an ironic commentary on the generic nature of the archetype; the third wave of a systematic assault on stock characters, exposing the overworked elements of his predecessors’ fiction. He uses a familiar structure to introduce and develop unconventional characters: a technique echoed in his treatment of plot.
Much like their innate ability to survive, zombie-fiction tradition suggests that each character should also harbour a physical link to the past; a pursuit of “something… [that] remind[s] [the character] of a time not so long ago when things were simple and not so fucking chaotic” (00:21:17). For Columbus this is his family – or a family, a group of people of which he can feel a part; for the sisters this is “Pacific Playland,” a place where they can re-attain their childhood innocence and ability to trust; for Tallahassee, who has “nothing left” (00:57:36) to live for, this something is a Twinkie. “It[‘s] as if he [gets] a taste of that comforting childhood treat the world [will] become innocent again and everything [will] return to normal” (00:21:17). In this instance, however, instead of subverting this notion and ironically discrediting its merit, Fleischer embraces it; he treats the attainment of these goals rather seriously – including the Twinkie, which by nature is not a serious object. By doing this, the sombre nature of his quest narrative is highlighted against the sea of mockery in which it swims; thus causing the quest’s conclusion to be more poignant. During the final scene each character’s respective goal is achieved and the movie – in direct contradiction of zombie tradition – ends with hope; in doing this, Fleischer fulfils his requirement to comedy mandate for a happy ending, while simultaneously undermining the zombie genre’s most sacred practice.
Fleischer’s Zombieland, while being a successful movie in its own right, provides a unique commentary on the overworked thematic elements of zombie-fiction; he simultaneously celebrates and discredits the genre’s worth, using its archetypical narrative structure to present a comically altered version of its expected contents. His movie, subtly infused with wit, charm and a slew of contemporary pop-culture references, appeals to his audience’s familiarity with zombie-fiction; it provides a delightful alternative to traditional apocalyptic imagery, making it difficult not to “enjoy the little things” (00:31:46).
Stewart, George. Earth Abides. New York: Del Ray Books, 2006. Text.
Zombieland. Dir. Ruben Fleischer. Perf. Jesse Eisenberg, Woody Harrelson, Emma Stone. Columbia pictures, 2009. DVD.