It’s been ten years since Ruben Fleischer’s Zombieland was the breakout surprise of October 2009 and, believe it or not, the sequel is finally here. Those who followed the rumors in the intervening decade must have felt that Zombieland: Double Tap was never going to happen; despite the obvious enthusiasm from star Jesse Eisenberg and the rest of the cast, the production delays, casting concerns, and screenwriter turnover made it tough to imagine a sequel ever seeing the light of day. But not only does the new film reunite pretty much everyone – cast, director, and screenwriters – it also manages to capture some of the same magic that made the original a successful R-rated comedy at a time where that seemed like a minor Hollywood miracle.
And while the world of these characters has not changed drastically since we last saw them – zombies and rules are still very much intact – it’s hard not to draw parallels between the two films and see what has changed about both zombie movies and comedies in one little decade.
In a recent interview with both Fleischer and Eisenberg, we discussed getting the script to the right place, finding room for improvisation, and the power of limitations when it comes to shooting action.
At this point in the press circuit, everyone knows that one of the biggest sticking points for a Zombieland sequel was the need for the perfect script. But for a film like Zombieland: Double Tap, the perfect script must also allow room for improvisation. Spend five minutes in a room with Jesse Eisenberg and you can count on two clever callbacks and one bit of wordplay you wish was your own; for a mind like this, having a script that allowed room for off-the-cuff humor and observations was half the battle. “When [writers Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick] finally turned in their draft of this movie, we knew, A, that if we just did the scenes that it would be a good movie, but, B, they created a kind of foundation and context for us to live in these characters,” Eisenberg explains.
This meant walking a fine line between scripted jokes and the potential for on-set humor between the actors. It also meant turning down versions of the script – good versions, even – that did not offer that perfect balance of characters and jokes. “There were some scripts that were really good,” Eisenberg recalls, “but it didn’t feel like… it didn’t feel possible to improvise within them, because the characters didn’t feel whole. They felt kind of jokey, which is not a fault of the writer. It’s just a different tonality.” For Eisenberg, what makes a character like Columbus great is his ability to understand their reactions to the world around them beyond the scene on the page. “Like, ‘Oh, I took this character and put him in another scene, and you would know how he reacts,’” he explains.
This is one of the insights that Eisenberg carried over between films. The popularity of the first movie validated that his off-the-cuff jokes could land with a broader audience than his director and co-stars; this, in turn, encouraged him to lean into these kind of jokes throughout the film. “In the first movie I would just make jokes to make Ruben or Woody laugh,” Eisenberg recalls, before admitting his surprise at hearing those same jokes were getting big laughs in the editing room and test screenings. “I’m saying, ‘What? That was not even for the movie, that was just, you know, for you.’ And, it taught me that I could make jokes that I really liked, that I think are a little too strange, you know, for a mainstream movie. And, that it could work.”
Of course, any comedy sequel with self-referential voiceover is going to break the fourth wall on occasion, but another highlight of Zombieland: Double Tap is the film’s knowledge of when to toe the line and when to wipe it out altogether. Take, for instance, a scene where Luke Wilson’s character calls out Tallahassee for his outdated slang. Having a character describe a bit of dialogue as “so 2009” works well enough – it should and does get its fair share of laughs from the audience – but what makes the joke work is the next moment. Emma Stone’s Wichita bursts into laughter, a laughter that is never explained or commented on – a reaction just for the audience. “There was a follow-up joke to that that Woody says, where he goes, ‘Yeah, but the knife in my back feels very right now,” Fleischer shares. “And it just was a hat on a hat a little bit. Whereas just the line and the laugh was funnier. So, yeah, it’s a process with my editor, and with audiences, and friends, and whoever else. Just seeing what lands.”
Of course, not every good idea in Zombieland: Double Tap is tied to the humor. One of the more interesting decisions in the film is its no-gun finale. Nobody would have faulted Zombieland: Double Tap if it ended in a hail of gunfire and slow-motion zombie kills. Instead, the film pivots in an unexpected way. The peaceful city of Babylon – named, naturally, after the still-popular 1999 David Gray song – becomes the setting of a final showdown between the group of survivors and a horde of the evolved undead. Despite plenty of jokes about the city’s anti-gun policy during a zombie apocalypse, the ending (mostly) upholds these values, choosing to use handheld weapons and monster trucks rather than guns. Audiences may see this as a noticeable departure from the first film and a sign of the times, but for Fleischer, this was more about using the limitations of the action genre as a source of inspiration.
“I think it forced us to be a little bit more creative by removing the guns from the characters, so that we had to come up with fun set pieces. Like a monster truck that’s mowing down zombies or dropping huge things off a roof on the zombies.” Fleischer points to action icons like Jackie Chan and Gareth Evans as examples of directors who knew that limitations are what define great action sequences. “If you have somebody who can just do everything easily, then it’s kind of boring,” he explains. “If you’re handcuffed to a chair and you’ve got to fight while your handcuffed, or something like that, it just adds a cool element.” Not a political statement, then, but a filmic one: in this particular mode of cinema, guns are played out. If zombies are going to continue to die for our entertainment, filmmakers have to find a more interesting way to shoot the action sequences.
Underneath it all, at the heart of Zombieland: Double Tap is a fascinating idea: what happens when popular culture, ever evolving in real life, remains frozen in time with the downfall of civilization? Given that this film takes place ten years after the end of the world, Columbus and company are effectively stuck, forever, with the film, music, and literature the year 2009 had to offer. This gives the sequel a unique position in relation to the first film – it’s a movie made in 2019 but about characters trapped in 2009, and one that blurs the line between past and present (think a ‘90s movie about the ‘80s, a film that is simultaneously too close and too far away from its cultural touchpoints). The biggest source of humor in the film comes in the form of Zoey Deutch; on the one hand, her character is a send-up of 2009 tropes, but on the other hand, she carves out her own path and comfortably steals the show. It’s the sort of character people will talk about, as much for what she isn’t (modern) as what she is (independent and hilarious).
But as far as making a conscious effort to age the characters of Zombieland with the times? While there are certainly a few jokes in the sequel that may not play well to all audiences, the film feels positioned towards a 2019 audience in a way that belies its frozen-in-2009 premise. When compared to the original, there’s a consciousness that some of the rougher edges of Zombieland – particularly with regards to Columbus’s more-than-occasional bouts of misanthropy – have been smoothed out with age. These are tempting threads to tug on, especially in light of Todd Phillips’s recent comments on the state of comedy, but one that Fleischer doesn’t see as intentional in his own work. “I don’t think I approached it with any greater sensitivity, or awareness than we did the first one,” he admits. “It’s all character-based comedy, and if it feels true to the character, then it’s okay.”
That’s probably the best way to summarize Zombieland: Double Tap. If you felt that the relationship between characters and comedy in the first movie was worth repeated viewings, there’s a lot to love in the new film as well. The new characters add a bit of freshness to the story, and the ideas kicked around by both Fleischer and Eisenberg – limitation-based action and more esoteric humor – make it more than just a retreat of what we’ve seen before. If Zombieland can prove that there was still some juice left in zombie movies in 2009, then Zombieland: Double Tap might just prove that the right sequel can still find its audience, too.
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