'Zombieland 2' and How a Subgenre Evolved Beyond a Fad
[This story contains spoilers for Zombieland: Double Tap]
It’s been 10 years since we last entered Zombieland, and nearly 20 since the undead became an inescapable part of our 21st century pop culture zeitgeist. We may run, we may hide, we may even fight against them, but zombies have us cornered. While there’s certainly reason to be weary of the outpouring of zombie content that populates our cinemas, television screens, novels and comics, there’s arguably even more reason to be excited as the horror subgenre evolves and we enter stage two of our contemporary infection.
Heat Vision breakdown
It’s a small wonder that Zombieland: Double Tap not only got made, but got made the way it did with Woody Harrelson, Emma Stone, Jesse Eisenberg, Abigail Breslin, writers Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick and director Ruben Fleischer all returning. And not only that, they returned to a world different from the one that brought audiences to theaters a decade ago.
Double Tap has the challenge of proving its relevance and necessity in a pop culture landscape when there’s at least half a dozen other forms of new zombie media that audiences can find to fill their time. This factor is even referenced by Eisenberg’s Columbus in the opening of the film. In part, it’s the film’s meta commentary, an awareness of the past decade of zombie content that makes Double Tap work, better than an immediate sequel would have eight or nine years ago. Zombieland doesn’t have to reinvent for its sequel, but it does have to be more clever at finding a way to engage audiences and give them something that subverts the expectations of what may be horror’s most familiar and thoroughly explored subgenre. What sets the Zombieland films apart from so many other z-films is that they aren’t about the inevitability of death, but the chance for life.
When the first film, Zombieland (2009), hit theaters, it wasn’t exactly ahead of the curve when it came to our modern zombie media. 28 Days Later (2002) kicked things off as patient zero, and the infection only spread with films like Dawn of the Dead (2004), Shaun of the Dead (2004), [REC] (2007) and Planet Terror (2007). Zombieland came during a high point in zombie media, and mere weeks before the outbreak became an epidemic with the premiere of AMC’s The Walking Dead, based on the comic series of the same name by Robert Kirkman, Tony Moore and Charlie Adlard. Fleischer’s film relied on audience familiarity with the horror subgenre, bolstered not only by the aforementioned contemporary entries but George A. Romero’s Dead trilogy and the comedic irreverence of The Return of the Living Dead (1985) which found a new generation of fans. Zombieland didn’t reinvent the zombie movie, but it wore its heart on its sleeve and operated with a clever sense of self-awareness and rulebook survival guide that felt not entirely unlike Wes Craven’s more vicious examination of the slasher genre in Scream (1996) and its subsequent sequels.
As the possibility of a sequel to Zombieland got further and further away and its cast and crew became involved in other projects — and the awards attention that came from them —the more it seemed that a Zombieland sequel had missed out on the fad it was born into. But contemporary zombie media has proven to be more than a fad. Horror often comes and goes in cycles: slasher movies, remakes, Asian horror remakes, vampires, exorcisms, all having their time to run the night before being put back in the ground, when our social and personal concerns shift to another sphere of intrigue. But the zombie film has remained steady and strong throughout the 21st century. Even recognizing the fact that some audiences have grown tired of the subgenre, there’s still plenty of room for the dead to walk the Earth. But our human characters may choose to survive a little differently.
The biggest takeaway from Zombieland: Double Tap is that it’s not interested in the shock value of killing off characters. The film even plays with this idea through Zoey Deutch’s breakout character Madison, before revealing a different outcome. This feels pleasantly against the groove of zombie movies and sequels in general. We’ve gotten used to waiting to see who dies next and placing bets thanks to The Walking Dead, currently on its 10th season and already renewed for an 11th. Double Tap works as a refreshing antithesis to The Walking Dead in its optimism and refusal to dangle the lives of its characters in front of us. There’s a real sense of danger, sure, but there’s also the reward of our optimism paying off and the recognition that character depth and change doesn’t have to be predicated on the question of who dies next. Zombieland is the humane alternative to the apocalypse.
Humane may seem like an odd choice to describe a zombie film, especially one that doesn’t spare on the blood and guts. There’s plenty to be gained from the bleak nihilism that punctuates so much of our zombie content, but the humane option fits with where we are as audiences. There’s little doubt that the enduring popularity of 21st century zombie movies is reliant on our own global fears about the declining state of our environment, the spread of diseases, the questions of what’s in our food, consideration of our own ability to survive in a drastically changing world. It’s scary stuff. Double Tap recognizes that, but what’s more is that it reminds us that survival doesn’t mean letting go of humanity. In fact, it’s the opposite that holds true. We’ve seen this notion paid lip service before, but few actually dare to follow through with it. The most popular zombie media relies on the notion that “we are the walking dead,” but that doesn’t have to be true. Double Tap beats back the inevitable doom and gloom of the zombie apocalypse with exaggerated characters and strong personalities that remind us that the living are far more worthy of our investment than the dead.
Double Tap isn’t the first zombie film to take this approach, but it is the most recent one with the highest profile. This year also gave us the domestic releases of the Japanese film One Cut of the Dead (2017), and the Australian film Little Monsters (2019). Both use their zombie narratives as a means to explore the meaning of family, and the bonds between people searching for normalcy in abnormal situations. The bonds, those formed and broken, have always been a part of the zombie movie, as far back as White Zombie (1932) and as celebrated as Night of the Living Dead (1968). And that search for normalcy make up some of the best parts of Dawn of the Dead (1978) and Day of the Dead (1985), though their endings posit uncertain futures in that regard. But these newer films that Double Tap counts itself among, feel more forgiving in their examination of humans’ inherent flaws and more lasting in their promise of a kind of normalcy.
Shaun of the Dead (2004), the forebearer to Zombieland’s brand of horror-comedy, feels like it’s ultimately working in service to the idea that people are unshakably stupid and ill-advised. There’s the happy ending of Shaun (Simon Pegg) ending up with Liz (Kate Ashfield), and getting to play video games with his now-zombified best friend Ed (Nick Frost), but there’s also something damning and dark about the fact that the remaining zombies are being used for entertainment and labor. Filmmaker Edgar Wright’s ending can be read as a contemporary reflection of European colonialism, which gave currency to the lore of the original zombies of Africa and Haiti. And this possibly intentional and possibly not socially conscious ending of Shaun of the Dead is also in step with Romero’s possibly intentional and possibly not reflection of police brutality and racism. Both films have an underlying subtext that humanity’s past is its future. Yet One Cut of the Dead, Little Monsters and Zombieland: Double Tap utilize characters that don’t ignore the personal and communal errors and atrocities of the past, but come to a conclusion in which they can move on from them in certainty that they won’t be repeating the same mistakes.
Zombie media has proven to be more than a fad. It’s a way of life, one that not only mirrors our own fears and insecurities but also our hopes. The undead are still good for a jump scare, of which Double Tap delivers on, but perhaps they’ve become too exposed to really scare us. The zombie, at least in the form it has taken now, may no longer be our nightmare but our driving force, the very thing that allows humans to connect and recognize the humanity in others while successfully outrunning the cyclical nature of our horrors.
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