‘Zombieland’ sequel lives up to quality of original

Photo courtesy of Columbia Pictures

When another horde of zombies arrive on their doorstep, Woody Harrelson repeats his iconic line: “It’s time to nut up or shut up.” Quickly, a couple other characters criticize the line for being crude and very 2009. This comical exchange in the new film “Zombieland Double Tap” winkingly acknowledges how much time has passed since the first installment in the zombie comedy series was released.

In fact, digging a little deeper into the ten-year gap between installations reveals a stark contrast between career statuses for nearly all involved. Although Jesse Eisenberg and Emma Stone were established, working actors at the time, they have since ascended into stardom. Eisenberg appeared as villains in “The Social Network” and “Batman v Superman”; Stone’s turns in “La La Land,” “Easy A” and “The Favourite” distinguished her as a rare talent of both dramatic performance and celebrity adoration. Meanwhile, writers Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick struck gold with the “Deadpool” movies, and director Ruben Fleischer became more firmly established in the industry after “Gangster Squad” and “Venom.”

Reflecting on all of this in a recent interview with the Technique, Fleischer thought the break between “Zombieland” films instilled fondness for the cast and crew. “I think we all just had an appreciation for how special the experience of making the first movie was,” said the 44-year-old director. For him, the new project was as much about recapturing the magic of the first film as it was about recreating the terrific work environment that conceived it. “This cast was just truly wonderful human beings and so collaborative and so fun.”

Fleischer admitted concerns about tarnishing the legacy of 2009’s instant cult classic, noting that some of the production delays stemmed from a desire to ensure that “the script was really great, and that we all felt confident entering into the sequel knowing that we had a great starting place.” To his credit and the credit of everyone involved, “Zombieland: Double Tap” certainly reflects the passion and joy that the
director described.

Despite being so well-adjusted to life in a post-apocalyptic world and adopting the White House as their home, the family of happenstance experiences frustration with the new status quo. Little Rock (Abigail Breslin of “Little Miss Sunshine”) feels suffocated under the overwhelming nature of Tallahassee (Woody Harrelson of “True Detective” and “White Men Can’t Jump), who has taken it upon himself to be her surrogate father. Likewise, Wichita (Stone) freaks when Columbus (Eisenberg) asks to settle-down. The women bail, opening the door for some new blood.

On the road, Little Rock and Wichita stumble upon Berkeley — a stoner, pacifist musician played by Avan Jogia (“Shaft”). After he and Little Rock become romantically involved, they abandon Wichita. Returning to the White House upset and dismayed, Wichita finds Columbus rebounding with a ditzy blonde named Madison, performed terrifically by Zoey Deutch (“Why Him?” and “Everybody
Wants Some!!”). 

Romantic entanglements aside, the group embarks after Little Rock out of concern for her safety amidst evolving zombies. The subsequent journeys yield appearances from Rosario Dawson as a strong, capable loner and from Thomas Middleditch and Luke Wilson as uncanny lookalikes for Columbus and Tallahassee.

While the zombie genre certainly invites action, the lasting power of “Double Tap” comes from the comedy. Reflective of Reese and Wernick’s work with “Deadpool,” almost every scene and line incites enthusiastic laughter. Fleischer highlighted the importance of improvisation on the set, saying, “I think it’s really important to have a loose
set environment.”

If any revelation is present in the sequel, that is Zoey Deutch. Fleischer spoke fondly of her and her improvised contributions. Not only does Deutch outshine the trappings of her archetype — a ditzy, sexualized blonde woman — but she completely steals the show, winning each of the scenes in which she appears.

Perhaps the most superordinate quality of “Double Tap, however, is consistent maintenance of the tone and vibe of the original. Fleischer explains that he was careful to keep the balance between comedy and gravity just right from script-writing in pre-production and actual filming to editing in post-production. “We always kept the performances grounded and real, and that the chemistry between performers is the most important thing,” Fleischer said, adding that “making sure that it felt like it had a consistent tone.”

It feels rare for a sequel to live up to a beloved original, but the finished product of “Zombieland: Double Tap” almost surpasses its predecessor. Recreating a profoundly special experience for all involved, the long-awaited reunion between cast and crew captures the magic of Fleischer’s debut feature, only now bolstered by new additions and ten years of experience.