Two months have passed since a mutated strain of mad cow disease mutated into "mad person disease" that became "mad zombie disease" which overran the entire United States population, turning American people into vicious zombies. Survivors of the zombie epidemic have learned that it is best not to grow attached to other survivors, because they could die at any moment, so many have taken to using their city of origin as nicknames. Unaffected college student Columbus (Jesse Eisenberg) is making his way from his college dorm in Austin, Texas, to Columbus, Ohio, to see whether his parents are still alive. He encounters Tallahassee (Woody Harrelson), another survivor, who is particularly violent in killing zombies. Though he doesn't appear to be sociable, Tallahassee reluctantly allows Columbus to travel with him. Tallahassee mentions he misses his puppy that was killed by zombies, as well as his affinity for Twinkies, which he actively tries to find.
The pair meet Wichita (Emma Stone) and her younger sister Little Rock (Abigail Breslin) in a grocery store. The sisters are con artists, and trick Tallahassee and Columbus into handing over their weapons by pretending that Little Rock was infected by the disease, then steal their Escalade. The two men find a yellow Hummer H2 loaded with weapons and go after the sisters. However, the girls spring another trap for them and take them hostage. Tallahassee steals his gun back and has a stand-off with Wichita, until Columbus lashes out in anger that they have bigger problems to worry about, resulting in an uneasy truce between them. The sisters reveal that they are going to the Pacific Playland amusement park in Los Angeles, an area supposedly free of zombies. After learning his hometown has been destroyed, and his parents likely killed, Columbus decides to accompany the others to California. Along the trip, Columbus persists in trying to impress and woo Wichita.
When the group reaches Hollywood, Tallahassee directs them to Bill Murray's mansion. Tallahassee and Wichita meet Murray himself, uninfected but disguised as a zombie so he can walk safely around town (and play golf). Murray is killed when Columbus shoots him, mistaking him for a real zombie during a practical joke while watching Ghostbusters with Little Rock. Columbus realizes during a game of Monopoly that Tallahassee has not been grieving for his puppy, but rather for his young son. Wichita becomes increasingly attracted to Columbus, and Tallahassee bonds with Little Rock, with whom he was previously at odds. Despite Wichita's attraction to Columbus, she fears attachment and leaves with Little Rock for Pacific Playland the next morning. Columbus decides to go after Wichita, and convinces Tallahassee to join him.
At Pacific Playland, the sisters activate all the rides and lights and begin to enjoy the park, but also unwittingly draw the attention of all the zombies in the surrounding area. A chase ensues, and just as the sisters are trapped on a drop tower ride called Blast Off, Tallahassee and Columbus arrive. Tallahassee lures the zombies away from the tower, creating a distraction for Columbus to get to the tower ride; both use the attractions to their advantage. Tallahassee eventually locks himself in a game booth, shooting zombies as they arrive. Columbus successfully evades and shoots through several zombies to reach the tower and help the girls down, but not before changing one of his rules for survival to conquer his coulrophobia by facing off against a clown zombie. In thanks, Wichita kisses Columbus and reveals her real name: Krista.
Tallahassee raids a deep fried Twinkies stand in search of his snack. During this, Columbus is startled by the noises of a rat and accidentally shoots at the last remaining box of Twinkies in the pantry, destroying all the cakes and making them inedible. Luckily, Little Rock has gotten a Twinkie beforehand and gives it to Tallahassee. The movie ends with the group leaving Pacific Playland as Columbus realizes without relating to other people, that you might as well be a zombie, and that he now has what he's always wanted: a family.Woody Harrelson as Tallahassee
Jesse Eisenberg as Columbus
Emma Stone as Wichita / Krista
Abigail Breslin as Little Rock
Amber Heard as 406
Bill Murray as Himself
Mike White as Gas Station Owner
A running gag (and a central theme throughout the film) is the list of rules Columbus comes up with for surviving in the zombie-infested world. By the end of the film, his list has thirty-three rules, yet only a few are mentioned. A series of promotional videos starring Woody Harrelson and Jesse Eisenberg expanded on the list presented in the film.
The main characters do not use each other's real names, but identify themselves using place names (Columbus, Tallahassee, Wichita, Little Rock) that relate to them. This includes Columbus's neighbor, named 406 after her room, and his fictional sexual conquest Beverly Hills, as well as Sister Cynthia Knickerbocker, whom Columbus identifies as a "Zombie Kill of the Week" winner, and whose surname is actually an obsolete term for a citizen or inhabitant of New York City. There is one exception in Bill Murray playing himself. At the end of the film, Wichita tells Columbus that her real name is Krista.
Writers Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick stated that the idea for Zombieland had "lived in [their] heads" for four-and-a-half years. The story was originally developed in 2005 as a spec script for television pilot in the summer of 2005. Wernick stated "We've got a long brainstorming document that still to this day gets updated on a near-weekly basis with ideas". Director Ruben Fleischer helped develop the script from a series into a self-contained feature by providing a specific destination to the road story, the amusement park. Earlier versions of the script called the protagonists Flagstaff and Albuquerque, rather than Columbus and Tallahassee, and the female characters were called Wichita and Stillwater. The celebrity who would cameo as himself was written as a zombified, dancing Patrick Swayze, including references to highlights of Swayze's career, even including a recreation of the potter's wheel scene from Ghost. Later versions of the script considered Sylvester Stallone, Joe Pesci, Mark Hamill, Dwayne Johnson, Kevin Bacon, Jean-Claude Van Damme or Matthew McConaughey as the celebrity, but Bill Murray eventually played the part, most of which was improvised according to Harrelson. Harrelson accepted the role on four conditions, two of which were about casting and crew. The third condition required the film to have an environmentally conscious set. The fourth condition required that the director not eat dairy products for a week, a task which Fleischer described was "like for an alcoholic not to drink". He succeeded and maintained a vegetarian diet for 11 months.
Principal photography began February 2009 in Hollywood, California, with scenes being shot at Scream Fest Theme Park and other locations. Filming continued in March in Atlanta, Hapeville, Morrow, Decatur, Newnan and Powder Springs, Georgia, where actress Abigail Breslin celebrated her 13th birthday by adopting a shelter puppy. Zombieland was filmed in digital, using the Panavision Genesis digital camera and had a 41-day shooting schedule.
The theme park scenes for the film's climax, Pacific Playland, were mostly shot in Valdosta, Georgia's local theme park Wild Adventures Water and Theme Park. Some of the rides prominently featured in the film include Pharaoh's Fury; the Double Shot (redubbed "Blast Off"); the Rattler; the Aviator; and the Bug Out. A haunted house facade was constructed at the theme park, but the interior was filmed on location at Netherworld Haunted House outside the city limits of Atlanta.
Special effects makeup designer Tony Gardner, who helped Rick Baker create the signature look of Michael Jackson's music video "Thriller" and has contributed to other Hollywood films such as 127 Hours, Hairspray, and There's Something About Mary, was brought on to design the look of the film's zombies. Michael Bonvillain, who was Cloverfield's cinematographer, was brought on for the "lively" hand-held camerawork. "Basically, it's the end of the world; the entire nation is zombies", stated Gardner. "And [the humans] are trying to get from the east coast to the west coast". For one shooting scene, Gardner said, "There were 160 zombies, in prosthetics, on set in an amusement park". He said it is "how you present yourself as a zombie that determines how people will react to you" and that "once the contact lenses go in", he thinks "all bets are off".
Gardner said he was excited about working on the film with first-time filmmaker Ruben Fleischer, who gave him free rein in his zombie design. "[We] are just trying to be real extreme with it", stated Gardner, "and trying to balance the scares out with the comedy". He described having to makeover physically attractive actors who usually benefit from their looks as "a little off-putting" after seeing some of them in their character makeup for the first time.
Harrelson had input into the wardrobe for his character, Tallahassee. "I never worked so long and hard on an outfit in my life," he stated. "What this guy wears is who he is. You want to get a sense of this guy as soon as you see him. So I pick out the necklaces, the sunglasses. But the hat? The minute you see that on Tallahassee, you buy him. He's real. And he's got a real cool hat". Harrelson's choice of headwear for Tallahassee came not just down to style, but also to his environmental passions: the distinctive hat is handmade in Brazil by a company called The Real Deal using recycled cargo-truck tarps and wire from old truck tires.
Shortly after finishing the filming of Zombieland, Harrelson had an altercation with a TMZ photographer at New York City's La Guardia Airport. His defense was that he was still in character and thought the cameraman was a zombie.
The special effects team created several visual elements, including "The Rules for Survival", which appear on-screen as they are related to the audience by Columbus: "Do cardio", "Beware of bathrooms", "Check the back seat", and so forth. The texts are rendered in 3-D. "When a previously stated rule becomes relevant—when nature calls, for instance—the relevant text pops up, occasionally getting splattered with blood." Slate's Josh Levin said, "The pop-up bit works precisely because Zombieland unspools like a game—how can you survive a zombie horde armed with a shotgun, an SUV and a smart mouth?"
A trailer of Zombieland was released on June 18, 2009. Distributed by Columbia Pictures, the film was released on October 2, 2009, a week earlier than originally advertised.
Zombieland was released by Sony Pictures Home Entertainment on February 2, 2010 on Blu-ray Disc and DVD. The film was released on March 15, 2010 on DVD and Blu-ray in the UK. Select Best Buy stores sold a special edition on both DVD and Blu-ray with an additional disc featuring two featurettes. It was also released as a film for the PSP UMD.
As of January, 2015, the film has sold 1,935,598 DVDs and 657,958 Blu-ray Discs totalling $39,165,702 and $16,291,929 respectively for a total of $55,457,631 in North America.
The film debuted at #1 at the box office in North America, with ticket sales of $24,733,155 over its opening weekend averaging about $8,147 from 3,036 theaters, matching its production budget. It was credited as having the second highest-grossing start on record for a zombie film behind the Dawn of the Dead remake and as "the first [American] horror comedy in recent memory to find significant theatrical success". The film grossed $60.8 million in 17 days, becoming the top-grossing zombie film in history; the record was previously held by the Dawn of the Dead remake. Resident Evil: Afterlife claimed the record the following year, grossing over $290 million worldwide. Zombieland closed on December 13, 2009, with a final gross of $75,590,286 in North America and $26,801,254 in other territories for a worldwide gross of $102,391,540.
CinemaScore polls conducted during the opening weekend, cinema audiences gave Zombieland an average grade of "A-" on an A+ to F scale.
Zombieland received positive reviews from critics. Review aggregator website Rotten Tomatoes gave the film a score of 90% based on reviews from 237 critics, with a rating average of 7.4/10. The website's consensus reads: "Wickedly funny and featuring plenty of gore, Zombieland is proof that the zombie subgenre is far from dead." At Metacritic, which assigns a normalized rating to reviews from mainstream critics, the film holds a score of 73 out of 100 based on 31 reviews, indicating "generally favorable reviews".
Film critic Roger Ebert was surprised by Zombieland's ability to be significantly humorous while zombies remained the focus of the film and felt that "all of this could have been dreary, but not here. The filmmakers show invention and well-tuned comic timing". He credited Bill Murray's cameo appearance as receiving the "single biggest laugh" of the year, and gave the film 3 out of 4 stars. Murray's cameo was called out for attention by other reviewers: Marc Savlov of Austin Chronicle credited it as "the single most outrageously entertaining unexpected celebrity cameo of any film—genre or otherwise—" that he had seen in a "long, long time" and that while the film did little to advance the genre, its smart script and high action made it very enjoyable. He categorized Zombieland as being "dead set against being dead serious" with its tonal pallor "ha[ving] more in common with a foreshortened It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World than with 28 Days or Weeks Later".
The film's witty use of dialogue and popular culture was also praised by Ty Burr of The Boston Globe, who said the film "makes no claims to greatness" but that what it "has instead—in spades—is deliciously weary end-of-the-world banter"; Michael Ordona of Los Angeles Times praised director Fleischer for "bring[ing] impeccable timing and bloodthirsty wit to the proceedings".
Some reviewers saw deeper levels in the plot and cinematography: cinematographer Michael Bonvillain was praised for capturing "some interesting images amid the post-apocalyptic carnival of carnage, as when he transforms the destruction of a souvenir shop into a rough ballet", while Stephanie Zacharek of Salon.com said "the picture is beautifully paced" and highlighted "a halcyon middle section where, in what could be viewed as a sideways homage to Rebel Without a Cause, our rootless wanderers share a brief respite in an empty, lavish mansion".
Claudia Puig of USA Today said that "underlying the carnage in Zombieland is a sweetly beating heart", and that "This road movie/horror flick/dark comedy/earnest romance/action film hybrid laces a gentle drollness through all the bloody mayhem". Entertainment Weekly's Lisa Schwarzbaum concluded, "At the bone, Zombieland is a polished, very funny road picture shaped by wisenheimer cable-TV sensibilities and starring four likable actors, each with an influential following".
Josh Levin of Slate drew parallels with Adventureland: in both films, Jesse Eisenberg tries to win over his dream girl, a girl who has been hardened by life, and both feature a theme park. He goes so far as to call the film "an undead Adventureland—a Pride and Prejudice and Zombies for the Facebook generation".
Time magazine's Richard Corliss described the film as "an exhilarating ride, start to finish" and reasoned "Edgar Wright and Simon Pegg set a high bar for this subgenre with Shaun of the Dead, but Reese, Werner and Fleischer may have trumped them". "This isn't just a good zombie comedy. It's a damn fine movie, period. And that's high praise, coming from a vampire guy", he stated.
Not all comparisons with Shaun of the Dead were favorable: Joshua Rothkopf of Time Out New York characterized the "extra injection of pop-culture neuroticism" as "the one innovation" of the film, declaring that while Zombieland was funny, it wasn't particularly scary and stated that it "simply isn't as witty as Shaun of the Dead, forever the yuks-meet-yucks standard". Similarly, The Globe and Mail's Rick Groen said "it's far more charming than chilling and way more funny than frightening", though he suggested that Rule No. 32 to 'enjoy the little things' was worth observing for a light comedy. Manohla Dargis of The New York Times classified the film as "[a] minor diversion dripping in splatter and groaning with self-amusement" and lamented the lack of a real plot more concrete than a series of comedy takes on zombie-slaying.
The film’s music was composed by David Sardy. The soundtrack was released on October 6, 2009 by Relativity Music Group.
All music composed by David Sardy.
Due to the film's success, writers Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick have planned a possible sequel, with many more ideas they want to explore. "We would love it, and everybody involved creatively wants to do another one", said Wernick. "Woody Harrelson came up to us after the final cut of the last scene and gave us a hug and said, 'I've never wanted to do a sequel in the previous movies I've done until this one.'" Wernick said he plans to have Jesse Eisenberg, Emma Stone, and Abigail Breslin star again with Ruben Fleischer returning as the director and that the writers have "tons of new ideas swimming in their heads". Additionally, they want to make the comedy into an enduring franchise. "We would love to do several sequels", stated Wernick. "We would love to also see it on television. It would make a wonderful TV series".
Reese and Wernick do not want to reveal any potential Zombieland sequel plot points. They are not planning on an immediate sequel, due to being heavily involved with other writing projects. The original cast and director are all set to return and Fleischer is enthusiastic about the idea of doing the sequel in 3D. Woody Harrelson and Jesse Eisenberg confirmed in February 2010 their return for the second installment of the series. In 2010, Fleischer stated that he was working on the screenplay and the creators have begun searching for another "superstar cameo".
In July 2011, Jesse Eisenberg said that he's "not sure what's happening" with the sequel but that the writers are working on a script for Zombieland 2. Eisenberg expressed concern that a sequel would no longer be "relevant". Woody Harrelson said that he was also hesitant to do a sequel, saying that "It's one thing to do it when it came out real good and it made a lot of people laugh, but then do a sequel? I don't know. I don't feel like a sequels guy."
In February 2016, Reese and Wernick were announced to be writing the sequel. In August 2016, Reese and Wernick confirmed they are working on Zombieland 2 and were meeting with Woody Harrelson to discuss the film, while stating "all the cast is pretty excited".
In March 2017, it was revealed that the script for Zombieland 2 has been completed. When asked Screen Rant, Wernick and Reese said, “It is [in active development]. We’re trying to get it going. All of our cast have read the script and love it. Ruben [Fleischer] is signed on. It’s just a matter of making our cast deals and making it for a budget number. All the cast have become superstars now so, we made Zombieland with 20 million, so it’s trying to fit that financial model into the sequel model so it makes sense for the studio and being able to pay the actors what they now get paid and deserve to get paid. We see Sony Pictures chairman] Tom Rothman pretty frequently now and we’re pestering that dude. He’s like, ‘Please, enough with the Zombieland talk!’ We’re pestering him the way we pestered Fox on Deadpool. We’re not letting it go. We really want to see Zombieland 2.”
In October 2011, it was reported that Fox Broadcasting Company and Sony Pictures were considering a television adaption of the series to be aired on CBS, with Paul Wernick and Rhett Reese writing the script, but with the main actors of the original film likely not returning. The television program was planned to begin in fall, 2012. These plans did not come to fruition. In January 2013, it was revealed that the casting call for the production just went out for the main characters, with a few changes to the movie for the show and the addition of two new characters, Atlanta and Ainsley.
In March 2013, it was announced that Amazon Studios had ordered a pilot episode. Reese, Wernick and Pollone were joined by Eli Craig, who directed the pilot. Tyler Ross plays Columbus, Kirk Ward plays Tallahassee, Maiara Walsh plays Wichita and Izabela Vidovic plays Little Rock. The pilot was released in April 2013 on Lovefilm and at Amazon Video. On May 17, 2013, Rhett Reese, creator of the TV adaptation, announced that Zombieland: The Series would not be picked up to be a series by Amazon.