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The Last Zombie Picture Show

Out there, in the multiverse of movies, is Peter Bogdanovich’s Zombieland from 1970. On Earth-Z739, Bogdanovich was never introduced to Larry McMurtry’s novel, The Last Picture Show (1966) where, in this parallel world, he shot a zombie picture in the autumn of 1969, reinventing the sub-genre overnight. It seemed George A. Romero had missed his opportunity to raise the dead, deciding to focus on a career in advertising after his huge success with TV commercials.

Following his work for Roger Corman — and the sharp counterculture debut Targets (1968) — it was only natural that Bogdanovich would turn his eye towards revisionist methods and breaking away independently. With the Vietnam War in full swing; the death of Martin Luthor King and the Manson Family murders in early August 1969; Bogdanovich, with screenwriter Alvin Sargent, set out to show the dismantling and ‘killing’ of America. Starring Steve McQueen as gun-toting tough guy, Tallahassee, Woody Allen as Columbus, Goldie Hawn as Wichita and Jodie Foster’s outstanding big-screen debut as Little Rock, Zombieland still stands as what some have called ‘The Last Zombie Picture Show’. 

The history behind the film is rife with undead tales and Hollywood fallouts. Bogdanovich was nearly fired when a fight broke out between him and McQueen because he had not filmed a master shot to cover the movie star’s crucial stunt sequence. Bob Hope’s cameo of himself is a standout moment — with its wonderful nod to Hope’s The Ghost Breakers (1940) — but he was disturbed by the amount of gore, along with the exploitation of Foster, during one of the film’s most infamous scenes. It is well documented that Bogdanovich put Hope in his place, “Well, Bob, you can always go back to hosting the Oscars.” Which he did for the final time in 1975 and 1978.

Back on Earth-Prime, director Ruben Fleischer’s version of Zombieland is more Shaun of the Dead (2004) than Dawn of the Dead (1978) although it does show traces of Zack Snyder’s 2004 remake, replacing the realism of Bogdanovich’s alternate version with balls to the wall superbad flavour comedy and casting; transplanting the alternate version from 1970 to 2009. Here, 21st century America is undead. Dweeby 20-something, Columbia is stuck in Texas surviving by his 30-something rules (see below). When he decides to travel to Ohio, to find out if his parents have survived the apocalypse, he finds the zombie-hating, scenery-chewing, Tallahassee. When they confront a young woman and her sister who has been bitten, they discover that they are out to survive by their own rules.

Don’t expect a plot — this is a film that remains somewhat incoherent, yet never overstays its welcome — a film that is primarily designed as a fun ride, rather than a road trip. Fleisher is intending to deliver the talk show equivalent of a zombie movie — light entertainment that lends you a chuckle and some laugh-out-loud moments — but, by the end, the world still burns. It’s a brave move; literally ending in a ‘zombie land’ as Columbus and Tallahassee, save Wichita and Little Rock from zombies invading Pacific Playland. There’s a bit of ‘clowning’ around, but aside from that, it puts the dead to rest with a Twinkie and a twinkle in one’s eye.

A line of undead ‘zombies’ walk through a field in the night in a still from the film, ‘Night Of The Living Dead,’ directed by George Romero, 1968. The film has been reissued for screenings on the 50th anniversary of its release.

Far from an independent feature, it shows all the shine of a studio Z-flick and the attention deficit of most adolescents raised on MTV and the burgeoning information age. Because television and pop culture is where Fleischer is at, it highlights all the more that he can’t get enough of the candyfloss and thrill rides. This is why it’s so much fun. Where Bogdanovich chooses a black and white road trip and soundtrack (one of the first by the way), Fleischer replaces the original cast and archaic tone of the parallel movie with a more bombastic affair. Yes, each actor nods and winks towards their counterparts, but each brings their own spin.  

As Columbus, Jesse Eisenberg is at his best when he’s playing an annoying twat who thinks he’s Woody Allen — that’s his personality — and is one of the few films you can spend 90 minutes in his company. This is helped however by Harrelson’s Tallahassee who has far more humility and heart than McQueen’s performance. Where Steve was (as you would expect) more concerned with taking the driving seat, Woody is far more relaxed and good-humoured in the role. Then there’s the sassy and savvy Emma Stone as Wichita, an effortless actress who always shows the brains, perfectly coupled with beauty. Bringing the sunshine is Abigail Breslin as Little Rock — lacking the energy of her ‘Little Miss’ role and the presence of Foster’s version — she is at her best in partnership with Stone who bolsters her acting.

For a zombie movie, there are few zombies. The road trip element is still there but with Columbus’ narration (that thinks it’s funnier than it is) the voice-over tends to focus so much on the rules he applies and therefore seem a little lost amongst the throwaway gags. This seems to be the point because Zombieland is junk food — a forgettable film; background noise with no real weight or depth — but is a rollicking good ride with likeable characters. If it feels episodic then it is down to both the TV and pop culture references that Fleischer is so comfortable with having predominantly directed talk shows. The film is designed to switch your brain off and forget everything about zombie and horror films unlike the prime examples of the sub-genre we have grown up on.

Let’s be honest, as adolescents, we watched horror films to entertain ourselves. We wanted the thrill of watching something unobtainable that remained out of reach on the shelf. We revelled in the gore, learnt about the special makeup effects — we were the fanboys first and foremost — before realising that it was all an education. Then the subtext and social commentary bubble to the surface lending a fresh perspective on the films you already love so much. 

Predating The Walking Dead TV series by a couple of years it still borrows from what the original comic book series set out to achieve. Where the zombies are the background noise to drama in that series, here they are the background noise to comedy. With this in mind, expectations are crucial here with the central premise of the film pulling a Wes Craven and defining a clear set of rules that both poke fun at the zombie movie, while at the same time managing not to shit on the horror genre. It’s a neat concept, a ‘Why didn’t I think of that?’ Which is kind of the idea. With rules, there is a defined world built upon what the audience and the characters already know. Eisenberg’s voiceover is just about bearable, lending the film a character most of us can relate to. We are Columbus — lost, naïve… bit of a ‘scrawny little spit-fuck’ — maybe a little Autistic with the whole ‘rules’ thing. A hugely paraphrased version goes like this:

Rule 1: Cardio – Columbus doesn’t hold back on the ‘fatties’. Cardio’s a real bitch, right?

Rule 2: The Double Tap – Extra shot to the head. Just to make sure.

Rule 3: Beware of Bathrooms – Life’s a shitter.

Rule 4: Buckle Up – Well, duh!

Rule 5: The ‘Skillet’ – Your favourite blunt instrument.

Rule 6: Travel Light – Yep, not even packin’ the underwear

Rule 7: Get a Kick-Ass Partner – Bagsy I get Eastwood.

Rule 8: With your Bare Hands – Wash them before and after for at least 20 minutes.

Rule 9: Don’t Swing Low – That’s just cheap.

Rule 10: Use Your Foot – Not your balls.

Rule 11: Bounty Paper Towels – Toilet paper is pretty hard to find in these scenarios.

Rule 12: Shake it Off – I always shake before zippin’.

Rule 13: Always carry a change of underwear – See Rule 6.

Rule 14: Bowling Ball – I can’t even roll them straight.

Rule 15: Opportunity Knocks – Les Dawson, all the way.

Rule 16: Don’t be a hero – Ah, the classic arc.

Rule 17: Limber Up – I pull muscles reaching for the TV controller.

Rule 18: Break it Up – If you ever get frustrated, tip a vase off the mantelpiece.

Rule 19: It’s a marathon, not a sprint unless it’s a sprint, then sprint – Run Forrest, run!

Rule 20: Avoid Strip Clubs – Never ‘eard of ‘em.

Rule 21: When in doubt Know your way out – I’m like a homing pigeon, me.

Rule 22: Ziploc™ Bags – Keeps things fresh ‘n’ dry.

Rule 23: Use your thumbs – If you still have any left.

Rule 24: Shoot First – Zombies don’t answer questions.

Rule 25: A little sunscreen never hurt anybody – I burn like a bastard.

Rule 26: Incoming! – Pigeons again.

Rule 27: Double-Knot your Shoes – I swear by this walking to work.

Rule 28: The Buddy System – Find your own Emma Stone.

Rule 29: Pack your stain stick – Just my luck I get blood on my best top.

Rule 30: Check the back seat – There’s always a bloody sweet wrapper!

Rule 31: Enjoy the little things – Barry Manilow, all the way.

Rule 32: Swiss Army Knife – Those tiny little tweezers are the ultimate weapon of choice when fighting zombies.

Whereas Bogdanovich’s version invented the rules and avoided any origin of a zombie outbreak, Eisenberg’s shirking hero Columbus helps us recall, ‘The plague of the 21st Century, remember mad cow disease? Well, mad cow became mad person became mad zombie.’ Too many Mac Dees, it would seem. Zombieland isn’t a scary film but a playful one that rattles along as much as the sense of humour, which is constant throughout. Once Bill ‘Fucking’ Murray turns up we know we are on full meta mode where, just like Bob Hope, he plays himself surviving the apocalypse disguised as a zombie when our posse camp out in his mansion. It’s a brilliant throwaway moment.

Earth Prime has taught us a great deal about our history and how it filters into genre storytelling with Romero leading the charge. Where he holed up a group of survivors, dismantling families and playing into the disturbing imagery of the Vietnam War and Civil Rights riots, there is something incredibly powerful, especially concerning the film’s ending where our loan black hero is shot — a decision made several months before Luthor King’s assassination — a more than potent scene, especially with the timing of its release after such events. Both Bogdanovich’s and Fleischer’s versions are very white — blindingly in fact — but don’t detract from what they set out to achieve, having their time and place in both respective universes.

Not all films can be a Bogdanovich classic. They’re just not designed to be. If you want something more pedestrian and idiosyncratic, then dig up Jim Jarmusch’s recent The Dead Don’t Die (2019) — this time with Bill Murray fighting the zombie hordes — a modern example that could well be the last of what we see of the undead for quite some time.

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About Rich Johnson

Rich Johnson's baptism with celluloid was during the Golden Age of VHS. He is a lecturer in film studies and graphic design, hosts @filmandpodcast and is one half of @mondomoviehouse. Writing credits include: Little White Lies, Hotdog, Network, Rebeller Media, Shots and Fangoria along with up-and-coming film commentary and boutique label essays. His Devil’s Advocates book on Bone Tomahawk is due out late 2020.

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