Prove your humanity

Much has changed since Zombieland hit theatres in 2009. The MCU has become a cinematic behemoth, Disney is remaking all of their animated classics for some ungodly reason, and mid-budget films as a whole have started to become risker and risker propositions in the ever-increasing blockbuster-centric landscape. And yet, Zombieland was a small zombie-comedy which somehow became a cult classic. Even if it being a commercial and critical hit somewhat denies it that honour. Along with being a solid little comedy, it also went a long way to boost the careers of two lead stars—Jesse Eisenberg and Emma Stone.

With Ruben Fleischer (Venom) returning to direct, Zombieland: Double Tap takes place ten years after the original as we continue to follow our main makeshift family comprised of Tallahassee (Woody Harrelson), Columbus (Jesse Eisenberg) and sisters Wichita (Emma Stone) and Little Rock (Abigail Breslin). They’ve become experts at this zombie killing business, but Columbus and Wichita’s relationship is on the rocks and Little Rock believes Tallahassee still treats her too much like a child. While staying in the abandoned White House, Wichita and Little Rock leave. One month later, Wichita returns to inform the two that her sister has gone off with a hippie pacifist named Berkley (Avan Jogia). They take it upon themselves to find her, and happen to meet some new acquaintances along the way.

In true comedy sequel fashion, Zombieland: Double Tap is more of the same—for better or worse. There’s more characters, more action and far more meta humour. Joined by Dave Callaham (The Expendables), it’s clear returning writers Rhett Reese & Phil Wernick have brought the successes from the Deadpool films over to this sequel, mainly in turning the meta element up to 11. Columbus—who narrates the film once again—states straight up that he’s aware the audience has so much zombie media to choose from and thanks us for taking this ride again.

To say Double Tap does anything new would be a lie. The ten-year gap between the first events isn’t really used as a story crutch at all. This film could’ve been released in 2011 and it would’ve really made no difference. Even the structure of the plot is extremely like the first; we’ve got the same crew (minus Little Rock) who go on a road trip which ultimately draws a horde of zombies to the group’s new place of refuge, proving to be exactly the same as its predecessor. While it results in a lack of true surprises, Fleischer and the writers know that the draw isn’t labyrinthine plotting, but the camaraderie between its core cast of characters. It’s not surprising that the film works as well as it does due to the cast and its new additions. New addition Zoey Deutch steals the show when she’s on screen as Madison—the prototype of the Valley Girl ditzy blonde who’s relentlessly cheerful and peppy. Her overt lack of intelligence is the butt of the joke which can be a tad cynical at times, but Deutch’s strong comedic sensibilities and radiant charisma keep the character from being an annoyingly one-note stereotype.

The first film was about a group of people who didn’t trust anyone having to learn to become a family and care for one another. I can’t say Double Tap does much more for character or thematic development aside from emphasising—but not really expanding upon—the importance of family. As much as the new additions to the cast are entertaining, they don’t add any new layers of pathos to the proceedings. This is more focused squarely on crazy hijinks. While that may sound harsh about a zombie comedy, the first had real moments of pathos, especially when learning about Tallahassee’s past and seeing our four central characters bond as a makeshift family overall.

Emma Stone has evolved into one of the best actresses on the planet since the first film, but unfortunately isn’t given a lot to do apart from simply being along for the ride. She’s good obviously, but to have her character service the arc of Jesse Eisenberg’s felt a bit disappointing. Abigail Breslin as Little Rock is essentially a plot device until the third act. Rosario Dawson is a fine addition to the cast as Nevada, but her character is really there to service Tallahassee’s character. She’s a very capable character but I wish she was given more pathos. The new characters aside from Nevada are basically all heightened stereotypes: the dumb blonde, the doppelgangers, the hippie. They’re all entertaining, but I’d argue there’s a bit of humanity lacking.

Director Ruben Fleischer has amassed a really odd filmography since his debut with Zombieland back in 2009. After the critical success of that film, he couldn’t replicate the success with 30 Minutes or Less and Gangster Squad, pivoting to TV by helming the pilot and executive producing underappreciated (and sadly now cancelled) Netflix comedy Santa Clarita Diet. His career spring boarded back with Venom last year, and despite the critical lashing that film was given, it managed to gross a staggering $A1.26 billion. Double Tap is definitely his best film since his debut. While he struggled to harness consistent tones in Gangster Squad and Venom, it’s clear he’s in his comfort zone when exploring this world. There’s irreverence and snark, but there’s just enough heart under the surface.

The budget was increased by $A27 million and it results in some more expansive action than the first. Yes, some VFX can be shoddy but I’d argue it adds to the low-budget charm that the first had. Fleischer constructs an extremely well done action scene in a motel which is made to look like one take and makes great use of that specific location’s tight spaces. It’s honestly better than anything in Venom despite it having less than half the budget.

The meta elements are fun in narration, but when a character retorts by saying, “that saying’s very 2009,” in regard to Tallahassee’s classic catchphrase it can be a bit much. There’s an extended gag with Madison explaining how she would’ve created a rideshare service to compete with the taxi industry and a gag like that is just way too lazy and cheap for writers with the prowess of Reese & Wernick, who have shown with the Deadpool films that they do boundary-pushing, clever humour well. The humour works best when the characters are allowed to display their little idiosyncrasies and swiftly play off of one another. The best meta gag comes in the film’s mid-credits scene which is a great call back to the first film. One thing that stood out as being an improvement from the first was the ‘zombie kill of the week’ concept which has been expanded to ‘zombie kill of the year’. That’s called back upon frequently and provides a fun through-line throughout.

Considering the slew of atrocious comedy sequels, this isn’t that and won’t tarnish the legacy of the first. The irreverence is still present, the character dynamics are still strong, and the character’s fun idiosyncrasies are entertaining despite the frustrating lack of pathos at points. Everything’s there that will satisfy fans. You’ll still enjoy the back-and-forth between Woody Harrelson and Jesse Eisenberg, but if you’re looking for something truly fresh and new, you won’t find it in this film. For most that’ll be just fine, and I can’t argue with that.

Zombieland: Double Tap is in cinemas now!