The zombies have evolved in “Zombieland: Double Tap”; the comedy not so much. But that’s OK, because Ruben Fleischer’s 2009 breakout hit — which gobbled up $75.6 million in a genre fast approaching its pop-culture saturation point — was already a few steps ahead of the curve: Its central quartet actually knew they were living in a walking-dead movie and were therefore armed to defend themselves against a breed of modern horror baddies to which previous film characters had been frustratingly slow to adapt.
Even zom-com classic “Shaun of the Dead” recycled the drawn-out routine where characters take a long time to catch on to the fact that an infected loved one is gradually transforming into a flesh-eater, too. “Zombieland,” by contrast, was blessedly meta — and downright irreverent about it — taking place it a world where the idea of zombies was already widespread, giving its ensemble a Darwinian advantage for the termination of the species.
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When “The Night of the Living Dead” broke out for real, most people were too dumb to react in time, leaving just four survivors uninfected: a nervous neurotic (Jesse Eisenberg) whose long list of over-cautious rules had kept him alive, a super-aggressive 2nd Amendment enthusiast (Woody Harrelson) downright eager to blow away brain-eaters, and two quick-witted sisters (Emma Stone and Abigail Breslin) who got by on their to-each-her-own philosophy. Rather than getting attached, lest they be required to kill one another, the gang referred to one another by their home towns — Columbus, Tallahassee, Wichita and Little Rock, respectively — and wound up forming a kind of ersatz family. Comedy legend Bill Murray wasn’t so lucky, as return viewers will recall.
Flash forward a decade, and Wichita’s an Oscar winner, Columbus took credit for inventing Facebook, and creators Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick went on to deconstruct the superhero movie big time, writing both installments of the “Deadpool” franchise, while Fleischer failed upwards, directing a pair of flops (“30 Minutes or Less” and “Gangster Squad”) before hit “Spider-Man” spin-off “Venom” saved his hide. That means the paychecks have swollen for nearly everyone “above the line,” even if the shoot itself is still being done on a shoestring, compared to budget-burners like “World War Z.” (One thing about zombie movies: Since the early days of George A. Romero, a great many have been made for virtually no money at all, whereas Fleischer works as lean as possible without compromising the result.)
In the “Zombieland” universe itself, less has changed. The core four are still together, this virtual family growing more dysfunctional by the day. Meanwhile, a certain strain of lamebrains (to steal a “Walking Dead” expression — and why not, since the grim line of zombie comics exist in their world?) are getting smarter. Some are virtually impossible to kill. “T-800s,” Columbus calls them, after the all-but-unstoppable android in “The Terminator.” That means after years of easily outwitting their lumbering aggressors, these characters need to adjust their methods and figure out a new way to fight those of the undead who simply refuse to die.
Now, . First, the men meet Madison (“The Politician’s” Zoey Deutch), a dumb-blonde stereotype so dim it’s a wonder she hasn’t already offed herself by accident. While the world went crazy around her, this pink-clad airhead took refuge at the mall, locking herself in a Pinkberry freezer whenever danger drew near. Then there’s Berkeley (Avan Jogia of “Now Apocalypse”), a pothead pacifist who has somehow gotten by on a strategy of conflict avoidance.
Turns out there’s a whole commune of like-minded peaceniks maintaining a state of post-apocalyptic bliss in a place called Babylon, where the final showdown between zombies and the brain-endangered goes down. But before that epic confrontation can happen, the gang — which fluctuates in number, but basically involves a rescue squad for gone-rogue Little Rock — must travel from the White House (where they had taken up temporary refuge) to what remains of Elvis Presley’s estate at Graceland.
En route, Tallahassee and Columbus discover they whatever special dynamic they thought they had is in fact shared by another pair: Alpha-male Albuquerque (Luke Wilson) mows down zombies in his monster truck, while fidgety Flagstaff (Thomas Middleditch) plays wingman. It’s a variation on the “Shaun of the Dead” gag where a small posse of survivors bump into a matching band of stock characters while sneaking through the alleys, only here, instead of going their separate ways, the two pairs of characters wind up grappling for their lives. While the guys wrestle with their doppelgangers, independent-minded Nevada (Rosario Dawson) looks on like some kind of ruthless referee. She’s the movie’s most welcome addition, even if, like all the movie’s female characters, the movie seems more focused on her sex appeal than her personality.
In that respect, the “Zombieland” sequel (co-written by “The Expendables” scribe Dave Callaham, who shares credit with Reese and Wernick) falls back on the flaws of the original. A few quasi-empowered lines uttered by the women doesn’t excuse the fact that these characters exist primarily as love interests for their hormonal male co-stars. Worse still, the violence once again functions as a kind of running joke, as the film’s “good guys” gleefully execute legions of anonymous ex-humans, making John Wick look like some kind of lightweight by comparison.
At the risk of sounding square, this kind of mirthful mass murder is a chilling byproduct of the genre — as in “The Walking Dead,” which established its ruthless tone right out of the gate, when Rick Grimes shot a zombie girl in the pilot episode. That scene was meant to disturb. Here, humor turns every kill into a sick punchline, and while the writers do a fine job of making them funny, like macabre cartoons in which Wile E. Coyote can rebound from unthinkable injuries, the movie’s tone negates a fundamental respect for human life. Yeah, yeah, it’s just a movie, you say. But like the first-person-shooter video games the film’s “Double Tap” title references, society can’t just passively sit back and accept an attitude that mocks pacifism and makes light of such extreme violence. Or else we’re the zombies, and the joke’s on us.