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'Zombieland' nearly scared off Woody Harrelson

The actor couldn't believe his agent would dare to pitch him a flick with such a ridiculous title. And then he read the script.

October 01, 2009|Robert Abele

Were they to exist, zombies would be hard to ignore. Scripts about these flesh-eating creatures are real, though, and it seems they're easier to push aside. Especially if you're an actor who does his best to ignore such movies.

"The one genre I don't watch is horror," says Woody Harrelson. "I get nightmares. For some reason, it really scares me."

Just to get the Oscar-nominated actor to read the script to "Zombieland," the title of which could lead any star to believe humans were secondary, was a chore for his agent. "I was like, 'Zombies, dude? Really?' " Harrelson says. "Then, finally, I read it and thought it was just phenomenal. [They're] more of a backdrop that brings all these characters together."

Opening Friday, the post-apocalyptic "Zombieland" has its share of splatter-rich mayhem and raving paragons of anatomical decay filmed in loving slow-motion. But at its heart, it's a personality-driven action comedy in which Harrelson's daring, quick-trigger character, Tallahassee -- a tough guy whose sense of loss drives him to daredevil zombie-destroying -- reluctantly teams up with a nervous young man known as Columbus ("Adventureland" star Jesse Eisenberg), who staves off fear (and survives) by adhering to his personal set of undead-avoidance rules.

Like Harrelson, Eisenberg -- normally drawn to such movies as "The Squid and the Whale," where emotions, as opposed to cannibalistic renderings, induce squirms -- had to be prodded into reading Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick's screenplay. He then discovered something more shocking than the de rigueur violence. "I realized this was better than most independent dramas I had at the time," says Eisenberg, "and had more authentic and well-rounded characters than many movies that focus only on characters. The movie can sustain itself without having to scare people."

First-time director Ruben Fleischer took pains to assure his cast -- which also includes Emma Stone and Abigail Breslin as a pair of survival-shrewd sisters -- that crunchy gore, terror, laughs and human beings could commingle effectively. "Because you invest in the characters, that's why we're able to go in all these directions," says Fleischer, who believes "Zombieland," which follows its protagonists as they make their way across the country to a West Coast amusement park, is closer in tone and spirit to strangers-on-a-road-trip movies such as "Planes, Trains & Automobiles" and "Midnight Run" than sustained-mood chillers like the original zombie masterpiece, George Romero's "Night of the Living Dead." "The buddy-comedy aspect is what excited me about it. It's the classic odd couple, the brains and the brawn."

Encouraged to improvise for many of the conversational scenes, the actors would often reach the point of trying anything to make each other laugh. Eisenberg hails Harrelson's ability to ignore others' lapses in concentration. "I've never seen anybody like him," says Eisenberg. "Somebody would start laughing, and he would just stare in character, offended. He never broke, ever."

If vampires have enjoyed a resurgence in pop culture that nonetheless adheres to well- established aesthetics of doomed romance, zombies have seen their metaphorical and genre-bending fortunes flourish since Romero's socially conscious, judiciously amusing fright feasts. From "Dawn of the Dead" wringing pointed satire from connecting zombies to mall culture to Peter Jackson's hilariously over-the-top extravaganza of blood, guts and squishiness "Dead Alive," and recently the comedy-first, carnage-second ethos of the beloved British sendup "Shaun of the Dead," something about tearing into a zombie story easily exposes a funny bone.

"I guess there's no sincerity to the zombie," Eisenberg proffers. "It's your friend chasing you around a playground, spitting at you. Zombies behave like dumb people. They just happen to be infected by this horrible virus. But it lends itself to idiot humor. The other thing is, you don't care about killing them. They're dead in the first place, so there's no pathos connected to slaughtering them."

Rather, the extreme situation involved lends itself to laughing at it, Harrelson adds. "That juxtaposition of fear and impending disaster makes the comedy work better," he says.

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