‘Zombieland’: Road Kill, By Kurt Loder

Woody Harrelson brings the laughs in a high-spirited monster mow-down.

[movie id="407353"]“Zombieland”[/movie] may be the first undead road-trip movie. The picture is light and unassuming, but it has a jaunty spirit; it’s funny beyond the call of genre and — the cool part, of course — wonderfully disgusting.

The premise has a nice, low-budget simplicity. A nationwide zombie plague has turned the country into a wasteland of stumbling gut-munchers (although they can move pretty fast when they want to). Only a few uninfected outriders remain, following 10 simple rules to stay alive. One of these is “Beware of bathrooms” (zombies like to crawl up on you under toilet-stall doors). Another — which should be retroactively posted in every monster movie ever made — is: “Check the backseat!”

The scattered survivors make their way through the national wreckage under adopted hometown monikers. One of these twitchy characters, a gun-happy hayseed called Tallahassee (Woody Harrelson), reluctantly joins forces with a chattery college nerd called Columbus (Jesse Eisenberg). Tallahassee has a van full of guns and ammo, and a great enthusiasm for using them. After some introductory fiend-swatting, and blowing away a bunch of fat junk-food zombies in a convenience store, he and Columbus encounter a pair of sisters called Wichita (Emma Stone) and Little Rock (Abigail Breslin). These two claim to be scared and helpless, but not for long. The girls turn out to be scam artists, and they quickly relieve the guys of their wheels and weapons. The boys find another van, though, filled with even bigger guns, and they give chase. Before long, they track down the girls, a truce is called, and all four of them set off for California, where Wichita says there’s an amusement park called Pacific Playland, outside of L.A., that’s entirely zombie-free. Sure.

The movie dives with relish into the bloody splatter and crunch that make zombie flicks so much fun. These zombies aren’t just run-of-the-mill flesh-rippers — they crack bones and suck marrow. And along with being wasted by shotguns and clubbed to death-for-real by baseball bats, they’re also dispatched in some lively new ways — crushed flat by a falling piano, whammed like a golf ball by a big swinging amusement-park ride. The picture gets maximum bang for its effects-budget buck.

Stone and Breslin are as appealing as always, and Eisenberg plays his usual jittery-dweeb persona for solid laughs. But it’s Harrelson who motors the movie, mowing down zombies with demented glee, peppering the mayhem with addled one-liners (recalling the death of his young son: “I haven’t cried like that since ‘Titanic’ “), and generally doing whatever it takes to pump up the hilarity. The man is a fearless comedy machine.

The movie hits a wall about three-quarters of the way through, when the story runs out of places to go. And an interlude involving a famous comedian , playing himself, feels like a buddy favor (the comic, an old Harrelson co-star, was making a movie around Atlanta at the same time this film was shooting), and it’s nowhere near as funny as you’d expect. The nutty stuff is really prime, though. And any movie that gives us a zombified carnival clown — bulb-nosed, fright-wigged, dripping blood and hostility — and beats him to the ground with a giant midway mallet can be forgiven an awful lot.

Be sure to check out Kurt Loder’s reviews of “Capitalism: A Love Story,” “Whip It” and “The Invention Of Lying,” also new in theaters this week.

Check out everything we’ve got on “Zombieland.”

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