A 2009 film that tells the story of the survivors of a zombie apocalypse, Zombieland features an unexpected mix of comedy and horror. While it is possible to make a funny movie about monsters, it isn’t easy. After all, zombies are flesh-eating corpses that have risen from the dead. That’s not exactly the kind of subject matter that gets a lot of laughs from an audience.
And yet, the movie was such a hit that it’s already regarded as a cult classic, despite being less than a decade old. While TV shows like The Walking Dead continue to depict the zombie apocalypse as nothing less than an utterly hopeless scenario, Zombieland took that concept and turned it into a comedy. Here’s why it works.
While some younger viewers may no longer remember this, when Scream was released in the ‘90s, audiences and critics didn’t merely embrace it because it was an effective horror film. Screenwriter Kevin Williamson knew that the slasher genre was so familiar to audiences that it would be difficult to take the subject matter completely seriously while also adhering to the popular tropes of the genre. Instead, Williamson managed to make audiences laugh by skewering those tropes. The film never became a self-parody, but it was self-aware enough to make audiences appreciate the humor.
That’s one of the key reasons why Zombieland resonated so well with audiences. By 2009, zombie movies were big again. Hollywood had pretty much ignored the genre for a couple of decades, but films like 28 Days Later and the remake of Dawn of the Dead brought it back to the forefront.
In other words, most filmgoers were extremely familiar with the popular genre tropes by 2009. Simply incorporating them into the movie in any kind of serious way would be difficult. Instead of trying to achieve this goal, the filmmakers decided to use that familiarity to elevate the film’s jokes. Audiences might not laugh that much if a filmmaker tried to satirize the tropes of a more obscure genre. Zombie movies, however, are popular enough that audiences responded to the film’s self-referential nature.
The filmmakers even hammered home the point by following the example of Scream in a very smart way. In Scream, one character explicitly references the importance of following certain rules in order to survive a slasher film. In Zombieland, Jesse Eisenberg’s character manages to survive the zombie apocalypse by following a set of rules based on zombie movie tropes. Rather than shy away from being too self-referential, the filmmakers willingly embraced it.
While Eisenberg is a talented actor, in 2009 most movie audiences thought of him as the awkward nerd character. He certainly was not the type of actor whom viewers thought of when they imagined a horror movie hero taking on hordes of the undead. Casting the likable, but awkward geek as one of the main protagonists ensured that Zombieland would possess a light and humorous tone.
Of course, any zombie movie needs some sort of formidable hero to help the less-prepared characters survive. That’s why Woody Harrelson was a perfect addition to the cast. Harrelson has cultivated a somewhat “goofy” character identity by playing over-the-top, All-American maniacs in films like Natural Born Killers. He has the confidence of John Wayne, mixed with the “don’t take this too seriously” comedic style of Nicolas Cage. Juxtaposing his performance against Jesse Eisenberg’s resulted in a funny character dynamic that audiences found consistently entertaining.
Emma Stone was also a smart casting choice. Throughout her career, she’s chosen to portray intelligent, independent women. Audiences like her because she refuses to linger in the shadows of the male characters. Even when her character is supposed to simply be the love interest of a man, she embodies a natural strength that proves she won’t sit by and be the damsel in distress.
Too often, horror films depict women as victims. There’s a reason the “scream queen” is a recognizable horror movie trope for many viewers. Emma Stone’s fierce independence, a quality mirrored in Abigail Breslin’s performance, sets Zombieland apart from the typical zombie movie. By distinguishing itself in a genre that had grown stale, it allowed viewers to see it with fresh eyes. This makes it easier to get laughs. Audiences know this isn’t the typical zombie flick.
Of course, following these two essential elements doesn’t guarantee that a horror-comedy will be successful. The film still needs a strong script, entertaining scenes, and engaging, dynamic performances. Zombieland works not only because of its casting and self-satirizing nature, but also because everyone working on the film gave it their all. However, putting forth your best effort isn’t enough if the production team doesn’t make smart choices during the development phase. Luckily, they did. Zombieland is an essential cult classic because of it.