Over the last decade, the popularity of the zombie genre has spread exponentially like the fictitious plague depicted in film and television. Ten years ago, it would have been impossible to imagine a weekly television series set in the midst of the undead onslaught, but AMC's The Walking Dead has come along and shattered preconceived notions of what could be done on television. As part of its initial 13-project development slate, Amazon Studios ordered a pilot for a series based on the surprise hit 2009 horror-comedy Zombieland, which starred Jesse Eisenberg, Woody Harrelson, Emma Stone, and Abigail Breslin as four survivors who find each other and form a new post-apocalyptic family unit.
Although the film took in over $100 million on a budget of $23.6 million, the series is working on a much lower budget and couldn't afford movie-star salaries to bring back the original cast, so the roles have been recast with virtual unknowns. For fans of the movie, that will be the biggest stumbling block for this potential series because the original actors were so memorable in bringing these characters to life.
However jarring it is at first to see new faces playing the same characters, the cast generally succeeds in owning the roles by the end of the pilot episode. While Kirk Ward looks more like Will Ferrell than Woody Harrelson, he brings his own laidback slacker style to Tallahassee and won me over with his freakout scene after yet another survivor they find dies comically. He has more of an everyman vibe to him, as does Tyler Ross filling Jesse Eisenberg's shoes as Columbus. Perhaps because he is a fresh face, Ross comes across as more earnest and relatable in the role, like a young Tom Hanks. His comic timing is solid and he plays the quintessential straight man quite well.
The low budget is obvious from the beginning with rudimentary zombie effects — compared to The Walking Dead, Zombieland resembles a fan-made YouTube video — but fortunately, Zombieland's strengths lie in humor and heart. More comedy than horror, the pilot hits its mark more often than it misses and delivers some genuine laughs, best exemplified by the storyline in the pilot episode. Aided by a surviving OnStar operator in Detroit, our protagonists' search for other survivors to add to their group is consistently met with death and tragic irony, resulting in some funny visual gags. The pre-apocalypse opening scene is another highlight, featuring two co-workers complaining about their mundane and petty "#firstworldproblems" with iPhones and Starbucks, oblivious to the zombie plague springing up outside the window behind them.
Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick, the writing duo behind the film, had originally envisioned Zombieland as a TV series and they bring the franchise's trademarks to the pilot episode, including the "Zombie Kill of the Week" and the "Zombieland Rules" list created by Columbus. These are clever devices and help to make Zombieland unique. "Kill of the Week" especially provides an opportunity for some truly over-the-top moments that need no setup or context; just have a dude roll a giant ball down a ramp and squish a zombie, no further explanation necessary. There is also an effective shock during the scene with the elderly zombies that momentarily made me think they were already killing off a main character, only to reveal a gag I don't recall seeing in a zombie movie before. The "two more angels in heaven" banter after violently dispatching the undead seniors cracked me up as well.
The recasting of such well-known actors didn't inspire much hope in this project, nor did the trailer released last week, but Zombieland's pilot episode definitely shows potential as a regular series. By the end of the episode, helmed by Tucker & Dale Vs. Evil director Eli Craig, the cast made me forget about the original actors and developed a family-like chemistry that will only improve with time as they gel together. Keep in mind Zombieland is first and foremost a comedy, without any of the usual horror trappings beyond the presence of zombies — no real scares, excessive gore, suspense, nudity, or foreboding doom of any kind. For some viewers, that will be a turn-off, but others will appreciate being able to watch the show without fear of losing their lunch. Clocking in at just under a half-hour, Zombieland doesn't overstay its welcome and serves as a tongue-in-cheek counterbalance to the relentlessly grim and ultra-serious world of The Walking Dead.
FINAL GRADE: B