The heart of the “Zombieland” movies is an ardent belief in America, that, somehow, a red-state redneck (Woody Harrelson) and a blue-state elite (Jesse Eisenberg) can put aside their differences and work for the common good.
As long as that common good is shooting zombies. (Although these days, could we even get that done, or would a third of the country dismiss undead attacks as fake news?)
The original 2009 “Zombieland” was a fun, clever and cartoonishly gory horror-comedy that found the sunny side of living in a zombie apocalypse. A decade later, “Zombieland: Double Tap,” also directed by Ruben Fleischer (“Venom”), seems like a totally unnecessary sequel. But the banter between Eisenberg and Harrelson (Dave Callaham joins original "Zombieland" writers Rhent Reese and Paul Wernick on the screenplay) carries it even when the big comic set pieces underwhelm.
The film opens with veteran zombie killer Tallahassee (Harrelson) and his tentative sidekick Columbus (Eisenberg) taking refuge inside the White House. In these movies, everybody takes the name of the city they were from, so joining them is Wichita (Emma Stone) and Little Rock (Abigail Breslin). Later on, the group meets a young woman named Madison (Zoey Deutch), who claims to be a peace-loving vegan, but comes across more like a pampered rich girl who literally lives at the mall. (Maybe they should have named her Maple Bluff?)
Anyway, Wichita and Little Rock get bored of hanging around 1600 Pennsylvania and dealing with the men — Columbus wants to marry the reluctant Wichita, and Tallahassee yearns to be a father figure for rebellious teen Little Rock. The women take off, but later Wichita returns. Little Rock ditched her to go off with a hippie (named, of course, Berkeley (Avan Jogia), and she wants to go find her.
It’s the absolute thinnest of plots, but it gets the gang where they belong, back out on the road, exchanging insults and killing zombies. In the sequel, there’s a new, more powerful mutant zombie nicknamed the “T-800,” but that mostly serves to make the fight scenes last a little longer. The “Zombieland” moves may be heavy on zombie gore, but they are almost totally scare-free. The film even comments on that lack of actual horror by showing Columbus reading a “Walking Dead” comic book (“This is really terrifying but totally unrealistic.”)
While zombie movies have typically used the genre as a vehicle for social commentary, the “Zombieland” movies steer clear of politics. Instead, the laughs come from how well Eisenberg and Harrelson can deliver a one-liner, or all the interesting ways one can kill a zombie. A running gag involves Tallahassee’s desire to win “Zombie Kill of the Year” honors.
The cast has great chemistry, and some of their back-and-forth is pretty funny. But it’s in the bigger comic ideas that the movie feels a little sluggish. A scene where Tallahassee and Columbus meet their doppelgangers (Luke Wilson and Thomas Middleditch), which was a quick throwaway gag in the superior “Shaun of the Dead,” is turned into an extended bit that wears out its welcome.
The highlight of the original “Zombieland” was a surprise celebrity cameo that was so wonderful that, even a decade later, I don’t want to spoil it. The sequel’s labored attempt at a repeat only underscores that, while this franchise isn’t creatively dead yet, it’s not looking so hot.