Zombieland's success at the U.S. box office this past weekend suggests our transatlantic cousins have finally formulated some sort of credible riposte to Shaun of the Dead. The hit Pegg-Wright zomcom was premised on the very English notion that it would be frightfully inconvenient if zombies were to take over the country; Zombieland adopts the very American line that an infestation of the undead would only exacerbate - and perhaps justify - everybody's pre-existing issues of trust. Our narrator-hero (Jesse Eisenberg) has survived the initial wave of attacks through a combination of smartly defined rules and a marked reluctance to leave the confines of his apartment; he remains, at heart, the type of wuss who feels compelled to apologise to any revenant whose tibia he slams in a door frame. Setting out for Columbus, Ohio to see whether his parents are still extant, he picks up fellow survivors en route: Tallahassee (Woody Harrelson), a bad-ass zombie slayer whose rage proves to be a form of displaced grief; and a pair of con-artist sisters (Emma Stone and Abigail Breslin), whose first trick is to fleece the boys of their guns and car.
From its inspired tagline ("This place is so dead") to a soundtrack that unites Doves with The Velvet Underground, Zombieland promises zesty, canny pop-cultural entertainment, and this Ruben Fleischer's film delivers. Much of the pleasure here resides in the casting. Eisenberg's nervy schtick may, in time, come to seem as one-note and carefully cultivated as Michael Cera's naivete - both, at some point, are going to have to play characters with a measure of carnal knowledge - but for the moment, at least, it remains fresh and winning. Stone and Breslin are a tart, sassy double-act, and Harrelson, reinvigorated by these kids' timing, is funnier than he has been on screen for several years. Everybody's issues will eventually be resolved by kicking them out into the world to have a blast of one kind or another with like-minded folk; as Eisenberg's closing words frame it, "without other people, you might as well be a zombie". This, you sense, is a major studio release seeking to persuade its target demographic to step away from the console, the modem and the Blu-Ray player, and put themselves (and their disposable income) back in wider circulation. It's no surprise our heroes should eventually hole up in an amusement park, a multiplex surrogate that permits a handful of inventive killings, and runs rather too close to Eisenberg's participation in the recent Adventureland.
If Zombieland is finally no more than a good night out with popcorn, it nonetheless realises that smart fun can, like a zombie's bite, be highly infectious, and its very savvy second act - the highpoint, after which all the funfairing proves something of an anti-climax - makes this one of the first films to address the disconcerting changing of the guard currently under way in our multiplexes, the scenario that has seen a whole swathe of 1980s movies being remade for a generation who - even with the advent and advantage of DVD - appear never to have heard of, let alone seen, these titles. Stone's character expresses nostalgia for her first R-rated movie, 1997's Anaconda (!), which she knows is dumb; taking refuge within the mansion of no less a figure than Bill Murray, in a sequence which teases the prospect of an appearance from the great man himself, Eisenberg introduces Breslin to the delights of the yet more ancient Ghost Busters, burbling "This is so exciting... you're gonna find out who you're gonna call". Or as Harrelson puts it when Murray finally shows up, with a fanboy's enthusiasm that is not untypical of Zombieland in its entirety: "Goddamn... Bill fucking Murray!"
Zombieland premieres on C4 tonight at 11.35pm.