Directed by Eli Craig
Distributed by Amazon Studios
Of the fourteen new pilots in online retailing giant Amazon’s exciting new venture into television production (in which viewers can watch all of the debuts and vote to decide whether or not they’ll go to series), “Zombieland” is probably the most high profile, having been based upon the very successful Ruben Fleischer-directed 2009 film of the same name. Featuring an all-new cast and a script from Zombieland creators Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick, “Zombieland” is a half-hour zom-com that can be streamed for free on Amazon Instant. The questions are – is it worth your time, and does it live up to the impressive feature film?
Picking up about two weeks after the movie’s events, “Zombieland” initially opens with a fun pre-apocalypse sequence set in an office building, with a couple of desk-riding employees droning on about meaningless issues, oblivious to the fact that the world is ending just outside the large picture window behind them. It’s a fun scene, and is the one sequence in the pilot that truly recalls the wit and style of the film (it also makes for a nice surprise intro to one of our leads).
Cut to post-Zombieland, as we catch up with our four heroes: Tallahassee (Ward), Columbus (Ross), Wichita (Walsh), and Little Rock (Vidovic). The thrust of this initial outing concerns our heroes trying to find more living humans in order to build a community of sorts. They are guided to fellow survivors by a former OnStar employee named Detroit (Fountain), who acts as their “eye in the sky”. As our heroes meet up with various non-zombies…well, I’ve leave it to you to discover the group’s “curse”. While the basic idea is amusing, the setup/payoff for each meeting is telegraphed well in advance, and is never as funny as it might have been with a surer hand at the helm.
This pilot is at its most successful when it’s focusing on our core four. The interplay amongst them is light and lively, and captures the fun of the original film’s relationships (even though the pilot plays a bit unfair by having Columbus and Wichita no longer an item – a contrivance to keep the lovelorn lad constantly pining after the gorgeous ass-kicker). And while none of these new actors look much like their filmic counterparts, they each manage to nail the spirit of the roles they’ve inherited (especially Ross, who sounds eerily like original Columbus Jesse Eisenberg at times).
In addition, the script by Reese and Wernick is quite good, with all of the sharp dialogue and enjoyable gimmicks that made the original such a blast (Columbus’ rules make a welcome reappearance here). It is their voice that truly creates a continuity between this pilot and the film, and one hopes that they’ll have a guiding hand in the series should it get picked up.
Unfortunately, the lifeless direction and noticeably low budget put a damper on the proceedings. One imagines that successive episodes will have a healthier amount of money to play with, especially if the series proves to be successful. If not, the show will fail miserably at portraying a post-apocalyptic world and providing the types of big stunts and effects that Zombieland fans are familiar with.
And while the opening scene is quite brilliantly staged, the bulk of the episode falls flat, with little of the style that made the original film so much fun. A shame, as the man at the helm here is Eli Craig, the director who gave us the very entertaining Tucker and Dale vs. Evil. His hiring for this pilot was an inspired choice, making it even more of a shame that it didn’t quite pay off. His direction here occasionally attempts some Fleischer-esque panache, but is mostly just uninspired (at times, the pilot isn’t stylistically unlike a mid-90s sitcom, sans laugh track). Here’s hoping the talented director regains his mojo if he’s brought back for subsequent episodes.
Ultimately, while the “Zombieland” pilot isn’t a home run (and while it pales in comparison to the film), it’s an amusing and diverting enough watch that’ll appeal to fans of its predecessor. Here’s hoping that, if it goes to series, the showrunners will take a long look at what works and what doesn’t, and will fine tune what they have to make it work for the television format. In any case – if you have thirty minutes to spare, you could do far worse than make a return visit to Zombieland.
2 1/2 out of 5