A decade after Ruben Fleischer’s feature debut became a surprise hit, quadrupled its budget, and briefly held the title of highest-earning zombie film of all-time, the “Zombieland” gang finally returns to the big screen. Fleischer and his star-studded cast are all back for more blood-spattered adventures, and the central foursome is all too eager to slip back into their roles as post-apocalyptic survivors. Yet despite the good vibes and amiable callbacks to the previous film, “Zombieland: Double Tap” is only ever amusing when it’s breaking new ground. That just doesn’t happen nearly enough.
The good stuff is, of course, still good. There’s the core four — Jesse Eisenberg as the pragmatic Columbus, Woody Harrelson as the gruff Tallahassee, Emma Stone as the snarky Wichita, and Abigail Breslin as perpetual kid sister Little Rock — all of whom exhibit the same flinty chemistry 10 years down the line. There’s Columbus’ understandable obsession with his rules for survival, which are again introduced by way of zippy key examples and flashy on-screen text. And there are full stretches of mile-a-minute laughs, fast-tumbling jokes, and an ability to remind audiences that the horror-comedy subgenre has endless possibilities.
And there are some welcome newcomers, none more satisfying than Zoey Deutch. As newbie Madison, a Von Dutch-sporting airhead mallrat (one who has literally not left the mall since the zombie outbreak), she manages to makes silly gags about persistent vocal fry and the joys of veganism endearing and hilarious. And there are plenty of creative environments for the crew to tussle around within, including the White House as a new home base and a wild Elvis-themed hotel in the middle of nowhere. There’s even a few good jokes about the “Terminator” franchise and two weirdo Columbus and Tallahassee doppelgangers (Thomas Middleditch and Luke Wilson) to help deliver them. There’s a whole subplot about the zombies evolving, turning them into fresh beasts that even the experienced crew is temporarily stymied by, the kind of one-upmanship key to building up a sequel.
That’s the good stuff.
Every movie sequel is inevitably beholden to certain elements of its first film, but “Zombieland: Double Tap” cribs so liberally from the original that it robs the entire outing of any narrative tension whatsoever (and this is a franchise built around the fear of increasingly unpredictable brain-biting monsters, basically a cinematic tension delivery service). From the fissures that appear between the various characters to the key locations that inspire road trip adventuring, it’s all been done before, with all the same people. Even the dum-dum decision that ultimately draws the baddies to the group’s long-sought place of apparent refuge is taken straight from its predecessor’s playbook.
Fantasy-tinged stories like “Zombieland” always require a certain suspension of disbelief, but the film’s script doesn’t just stretch logic; it snaps it. Screenwriters Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick have apparently been dreaming of a followup for years, which makes the sloppy elements sting all the more. In the film’s first act, the group decamps for the White House, giddy over the possibility of exploiting stronger security measures. They waltz right in the unlocked front door. Later, a character who owns a hotel for people eager to escape the madness of “the z’s” greets her human clients with a shotgun. Soon enough, they’ve decamped for an idyllic location that has never once been previously mentioned (nor has its location been disclosed), arriving at the secretive spot within mere hours. It’s almost too easy and deprives the movie of any discernible sense of danger. These are small moments, but they add up to something as brain-free as the film’s own walking dead.
Most discomfiting of all, however, is a persistent resistance to engage with the lovable humans in believable terms. The film’s inciting incident sees Wichita and Little Rock hitting the road, abandoning Columbus and Tallahassee after a decade together without a moment’s thought. Perhaps living in a post-apocalyptic world where the ability to kill without mercy is the greatest tool of survival makes everyone into an emotionless drone, but it’s a tough sell.
Not that the characters of “Zombieland: Double Tap” are entirely devoid of pathos. They show some measure of substance in convenient moments designed to move the plot forward. Characters reverse course on a regular basis, going against their better nature, but it feels like cheap storytelling to keep the audience engaged. Mostly, it reduces characters with a feature-length history behind them into simplistic devices.
For some audiences, that may be enough to get their fix: “Zombieland: Double Tap” still finds space for big laughs (the pairing of Eisenberg and Harrelson remains nutty and fun), a welcome cameo in the credits, and a banger of a final battle in which the body count soars to ridiculous numbers. But, after 10 years of anticipation, it would have been nice to see a zombie movie with more on its mind than the same goofy undead routine.
Sony Pictures will release “Zombieland: Double Tap” in theaters on Friday, October 18.