Why is it that when audiences clamor for a sequel, they never get it, but when a follow-up couldn't be more pointless, Hollywood can't wait to produce a whole series of them?
As “Scary Movie 5” mercifully begins to leave theaters, we are still waiting for word on “Zombieland 2.” The first film, released in 2009, was a surprise hit, becoming one of the top grossing zombie films of all time even though it was more of a comedy than a horror flick. Though that may be what gave it its edge (basically an Americanized “Shaun of the Dead”), it was a loving send-up of the genre that still contained suspenseful, emotional, and gory moments, granting it a broader appeal. Everyone involved seemed ready for a second installment almost immediately, but production continued to stall until talk of it died off like the last remaining human on Earth.
In its place, writers Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick discussed the possibility of a TV adaptation, as the original film was pitched as a show. After AMC's “The Walking Dead” premiered in 2010, one would think that a “Zombieland” program would be a natural green light, but again, the idea shambled and festered. Then, out of nowhere, a trailer emerged online – Amazon had ordered a pilot episode amongst a collection of other shows for its first wave of original programming. Unlike its competitor, Netflix, Amazon released a series of pilots and asked viewers which shows they would like to see picked up. With a built-in fan base, “Zombieland” seemed like the obvious frontrunner, but that trailer killed fervor faster than a falling piano from a church window.
Despite having Reese and Wernick writing with the director of the very funny horror comedy “Tucker & Dale vs. Evil” at the helm, the edginess and unpredictability of the original seemed substituted for cheesy jokes and even cheesier production values. Also replaced were the main actors – Jesse Eisenberg, Emma Stone, and Abigail Breslin were swapped out for cheaper lookalikes while Woody Harrelson's stand-in couldn't even pass for his stunt double. This would be passable for a fan-made venture, but it seemed beneath a large company like Amazon trying to make a good first impression on potential customers.
When they released the first half-hour episode for free, however, I decided to give it a shot. It wasn't nearly as bad as the preview had made it out to be, but like most pilots, it's going to need some work if it's going to persist in this survival of the fittest.
It starts off on the right foot, focusing on two self-centered office workers clueless to the chaos outside – they're the first type of people to go in a setting like this, and it's satisfying to watch. Tallahassee, who Woody played like a fun-loving redneck, is portrayed by newcomer Kirk Ward as a lowly office employee finally able to release his pent-up aggression, and while I'm all for actors making established roles their own (see Mads Mikkelsen in NBC's “Hannibal”), it seems odd to change the fan-favorite, Twinkie-loving hillbilly this much so early in the game, especially since it seems like the show is a direct continuation of the movie.
Ward is more sitcom dad funny than movie star funny, and even though Maiara Walsh (Wichita) and Tyler Ross (Columbus), also our narrator, banter back and forth like the fast-paced dialogue of the source material, it feels too much like scripted “Must See TV” with passable-looking zombies and CGI thrown in. The “shot on a back studio lot” feel is hard to shake, particularly following the high production values of “The Walking Dead,” but it does its best of reminding us this is “Zombieland” by reiterating Columbus' “rules” for survival throughout the episode along with the humorous “Zombie Kill of the Week,” both memorable highlights of the film version.
One glaring mistake, however, is the lack of Rule No. 2: the “double tap.” There are a few times the group kills a zombie and walks away without finishing the job, which shows how rushed this is in general. By the time they establish the romantic tension between our 20-something characters, young Izabela Vidovic (Little Rock) is left with nothing but a few filler lines. To its credit, it tackles a lot in 30 minutes as it carries a running gag (everyone they hope to join up with immediately dies), but the convenient addition of a lone OnStar employee helping them locate survivors across the country amongst other unnecessary product placement bogs down what could be the next “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” of movie adaptations if it tries – it could also be “Ferris Bueller” or “Weird Science” if it's not careful.
The consistently energetic Ward, I think, could grow on me if given the right script to work with, and if a few more unpredictable moments along with some odd celebrity cameos were tossed in, the gags would go from slight chuckle to slack-jawed guffaw in no time; pilots rarely resemble the series they spawn, after all. The best “Walking Dead” episodes feel like small films, so if “Zombieland” can cardio its way away from television tedium towards cinematic pacing with a backbone of solid jokes, it may be worth Amazon's approval. I wouldn't green light 12 episodes, but six? I'll flash the yellow light of cautious optimism.
Would we have been better off with a movie sequel? Sure, but you take what you can get in the end times of entertainment. In the days when “Scary Movie 6” seems inevitable, this show could be a hero.
-Rich Howells is a lifelong Marvel Comics collector, wannabe Jedi master, and cult film fan. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.