Of all the films to become subject to a superfluous sequel, Zombieland is one to approach with about equal parts excitement and apprehension. Why mess with perfection? The original 2009 film remains an untarnished gem, a lightning-in-a-bottle scenario that brought together the perfect mix of cast and creative talent to deliver something unique and special. The film was fresh and hilarious and brash in a way that ultimately proved influential – its writers, Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick, went on to pen the Deadpool films, which raked in billions by replicating the self-referential, fourth-wall-breaking anarchic style that Zombieland previously perfected.
The Deadpool connection is instructive here, since the advertising for Zombieland: Double Tap exploits it so heavily. “From the writers of Deadpool,” the advertisements tell us…but they’re also the writers of, ya know, the first Zombieland. “And from the director of Venom,” they tells us, a selling point surely based on box-office receipts as opposed to discernible cinematic quality. That director is Ruben Fleischer, whose feature directorial debut was the original Zombieland. It speaks to the decade-long interval between these two films – and the commandeering of cinematic culture by comic book mega-franchises during that lag time – that Sony scored the original creatives behind the beloved original but were compelled to sell them as the people behind whatever superhero franchise they worked on. All of this to turn Zombieland into something of its own franchise, fancy that.
What results from all that inter-franchise advertisement is Zombieland: Double Tap, which in its own way suffers from the cinema’s sequelization death hold – it’s certainly unnecessary and lacks the spontaneous spark of its predecessor – but is able to conjure enough charm to make it worth the time of all involved, including the audience. A major part of its success is the retention of the original creative team, as well as the dynamo of a cast, the reassembling of which is now a more difficult (and more costly) proposition. So while a lot of the material is retread – sometimes out of sly self-reference, sometimes out of needless adherence to formula – the actors infuse it with the energy of a group who are happy to be reunited, and as a result, we’re happy to reunite with them as well.
After spending the majority of the past ten years traversing the country, slaughtering zombies in their path as they search for the occasional safe haven, our makeshift family of Columbus (Jesse Eisenberg), Tallahassee (Woody Harrelson), Wichita (Emma Stone), and Little Rock (Abigail Breslin) seem to have found a permanent home…in the White House. It’s a perfect fortress, preserved from the Obama era, having been subject to zombie apocalypse but spared the abject horror of a Trump presidency. The scenario is ideal for Columbus, who craves a stable family dynamic, and Tallahassee, who enjoys playing the dad role. But not so much for Little Rock, who yearns to experience life on her own, and Wichita, who is reticent to be tied down to a committed relationship with Columbus.
So basically, it’s the same setup as the first time around, with the women inclined to set out on their own at a moment’s notice, leaving the aggrieved men behind to chase after them. Only this time, Little Rock even leaves Wichita behind, running off with a faux-woke hipster en route to a pacifist safe zone. One sign of the generational gap between the first and second film is the film’s deriding of non-violent types as moronic hippies, which would’ve played better in 2009, but feels slightly icky in such close proximity to multiple mass shootings, even in the context of apocalyptic survivalism, and even with tongue firmly in cheek.
Uprooted from their newfound home on Pennsylvania Avenue, the remaining three go on a cross-country search for Little Rock, where they encounter a rogue’s gallery of colorful characters, all played by recognizable actors who mainly spice but not substance in brief appearances, since the core of what makes Zombieland work is the chemistry of the four leads, all else be damned. Two of them amount to more than extended cameos: Rosario Dawson as Nevada, who resides in a kitschy shrine to Elvis just outside Graceland, and Zoey Deutch as Madison, a ditz the gang meets at an abandoned shopping mall, who becomes the butt of endless dumb blonde jokes that probably weren’t funny back in 2009, when the original film was smart enough not to employ them.
More successful are the self-referential jokes, most of which remain on target, even though a few are almost sentimental in their clunkiness. As opposed to the razor-sharp, unrelenting meta of a film like 22 Jump Street, Double Tap seems to toss off aww-shucks throwback references that feel a little too sincere for a film so clearly attempting to stay in on its own joke. Nevertheless, it’s fun to see this group back together again, especially after all this time. Nothing can fully recapture the magic of Zombieland, but Double Tap, per its title, succeeds at giving you more of what you thought you never needed, all the way up through the credits, for which you must stay seated. After all, this is a franchise now.