The ’00s will be remembered as the decade of snark, a period where being smart and funny also meant being witheringly condescending towards everyone and everything that wasn’t in on the joke. That, and zombie movies. 2009’s Zombieland combined these two trends to clever effect, and was rewarded for its excellence in undead quippage with $102 million at the domestic box office. That film is now a cult classic, so it’s strange that it took so long for its sequel, Zombieland: Double Tap, to hit theaters. And unfortunately, the decade that passed between the two films was long enough for the approach to grow tiresome.
Like the more recent zom-com Little Monsters, Zombieland: Double Tap operates on the principle that jokes only get funnier the louder you tell them. The gags from the previous film are all bigger—take Zombie Kill of the Week, now upgraded to Zombie Kill of the Year—and the fourth wall-breaking voiceover more aggressive. (At times, you half-expect the film to challenge you, the viewer, to a fight.) It also believes that explaining a joke is a necessary part of the joke-telling process, and pushes through the resulting monotony with a fast-talking barrage of verbiage for verbiage’s sake. These torrents of dialogue are mostly delivered by our protagonist, Columbus (Jesse Eisenberg)—who, to be fair, is uniquely suited for that sort of thing, and does it well.
Since we last left the neurotic keeper of the list of rules that pop up on screen throughout the film (e.g.: “rule #7: travel light”), he’s holed up in the abandoned White House—as in, 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue—with his friends Tallahassee (Woody Harrelson), Wichita (Emma Stone), and Little Rock (Abigail Breslin). Finally safe, they settle into a post-apocalyptic version of playing house, with Tallahassee as the gruff patriarch, Wichita and Columbus the happy young couple, and Little Rock the spoiled child. This all proves to be too much for Wichita and Little Rock, and they take off in an armored car, preferring to brave the zombie hordes than deal with these men one moment longer. Out on the road, Little Rock meets a handsome hippie named Berkeley (Avan Jogia), setting up the overarching plot as well as a series of groan-worthy jokes like, “we’re supposed to be killing the dead, not following them!”
Zombieland: Double Tap is very much told from Columbus’ perspective, and it’s here that its script really starts to feel stale. You don’t realize how much pop-cultural gender politics have changed in the past 10 years until you’re sitting in a theater watching a pair of cool girl/dumb blonde stereotypes fight over a man who, although their venomous jealousy would lead you to believe as much, is not the last man on Earth. The latter is embodied by Madison (Zoey Deutch), a woman Columbus meets at an abandoned mall shortly after Wichita dumps him. Her pink velour tracksuit and Von Dutch tank top scream 2009, but so does her companions’ snarky banter about how subhuman she is. Nevertheless, Deutch soldiers on, and she’s consistently the funniest part of the film. She even gets a couple of good kills in.
Lest these criticisms be written off as mere PC offense, it should also be noted that even divorced from their cultural context, the jokes, more often than not, just don’t land. And when the movie does come up with a good gag—the bit where Tallahassee and Columbus meet their brothers from another mother, Albuquerque (Luke Wilson) and Flagstaff (Thomas Middleditch), is inspired—it beats it to death, watches it rise from the grave, and then beats it to death again. The performances don’t help: Harrelson frequently performs at a different, more manic tenor from that of his sarcastic scene partners, which is, frankly, kind of embarrassing. With all this in mind, when the film decides it’s going to go earnest, all the talk of family and destiny feels formulaic and insincere.
This messiness carries through to the world-building, and Zombieland: Double Tap invites pedantic skepticism by building its own smarter-than-thou rebuttals into the script. (At one point, Eisenberg literally turns to another character and says, “as long as it keeps raining, the dams just keep giving us electricity.”) Anyway, the film never lingers on these annoying questions for long: There’s a lot of loose, episodic plot in this film, and a lot of characters, including an Elvis-loving, monster truck-driving love interest for Harrelson played by Rosario Dawson. When it comes to zombies, more is more, and there are a few good scenes of gory mayhem in this film. But when it comes to Zombieland movies, more is just tedious.