Before Hollywood went into its current state of overdrive with sequels, reboots, and remakes—to wit: Disney hasn’t theatrically released an original film since Coco in 2017—the industry had itself a healthy craving for zombie content. Films like 28 Days Later, Resident Evil, Shaun of the Dead, and a Dawn of the Dead remake all made a killing (I’m sorry) at the box office throughout the 2000s, while in 2010, AMC dropped the first season of The Walking Dead—the post-apocalyptic drama that morphed into a legitimate ratings phenomenon.
Things are a little different nowadays. The bottom didn’t quite fall out for the genre—there are still good zombie flicks to be had, like 2016’s Train to Busan—but superheroes and cinematic world-building are the ultimate currency. The Walking Dead, meanwhile, just began airing its 10th season, but has become largely irrelevant in this era of Peak TV. (Here’s a surprise, though: The show actually got good again!)
That context is key going into this weekend’s release of Zombieland: Double Tap, the long-gestating—though probably unnecessary—sequel to the 2009 cult comedy. (Which itself helped AMC have faith in The Walking Dead, according to the film’s writers.) Following in the footsteps of the winking zombie humor from Shaun of the Dead, the charm of Zombieland came from its relative aimlessness. In lieu of sociopolitical commentary or an unsparing gorefest, Zombieland keyed in on the potential mundanity of day-to-day life in the zombie apocalypse, and the importance of finding a makeshift [Dominic Toretto voice] family to call your own.
Here’s a little reminder of what happened, since it’s been a while: Though they don’t trust each other at first, lonely apocalypse survivors Tallahassee (Woody Harrelson), Columbus (a typically neurotic Jesse Eisenberg), and sisters Wichita (Emma Stone) and Little Rock (Abigail Breslin) form an endearing, if somewhat superficial, bond. (Tallahassee spends the entire film craving Twinkies, and his entire personality is best described as a bald eagle draped in an American flag flying over a NASCAR track.) And, of course, any discussion of Zombieland isn’t complete without talking about Bill Murray, who memorably cameos as himself—he wears zombie makeup to blend in and avoid getting eaten while golfing in Beverly Hills—before Columbus inadvertently kills him. The word “iconic” is thrown around too much but, yes, Zombieland Bill Murray was iconic.
A lot’s changed for the cast and crew of Zombieland in the decade since it came out: Stone won a Best Actress Oscar for La La Land and Eisenberg scored an Oscar nomination of his own for The Social Network, writers Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick honed their meta-commentary penning the Deadpool franchise (they share the screenwriting credit for Double Tap with Dave Callaham), and returning director Ruben Fleischer made Venom, the greatest film of all time. In other words, 2019 provides a far different landscape for Double Tap to enter—wherein the film’s actors almost seem too prestigious for the lovably dumb material, and everything feels comparatively small scale when held up against the overbearing dominance of the Disney Industrial Complex.
But it’s the self-awareness at the heart of Double Tap that makes the film a worthy, and similarly laid-back, successor. Columbus thanks you for watching Double Tap in his opening voice-over, because, “you have a lot of choices when it comes to zombie entertainment,” not long before he reads part of an issue of The Walking Dead graphic novel and calls the material unrealistic. The meta humor isn’t quite that brazen for the rest of the film—it’s certainly more subtle than Deadpool. But the plot machinations do plenty to serve up absurdity. The second Zombieland is bigger, bolder, and weirder than the first because, well, that’s kind of what sequels are supposed to be.
The zombies themselves, which rarely posed a serious threat to the characters in the first film, have “evolved” over time. (New zombie types include “Hawkings,” which have enough intelligence to get past obstacles, and “Ninjas,” which will sneak up on you with unexpected stealth.) The deadliest strain, which Columbus dubs “T-800s,” are vicious and nearly unstoppable zombies—requiring characters to unload a ton of ammo to take them out. It’s a quintessential sequel solution: make the new adversaries more formidable in order to elevate the stakes. Double Tap’s climactic set piece follows a familiar pattern, with a goddamn monster truck incorporated into the final zombie showdown—a step up from the amusement park high jinks that bookended the original film.
The other sequel trope that Double Tap gleefully leans into: expanding the cast. While Zoey Deutch, playing an airhead found living in a mall, is a hilarious inclusion, the film’s best moments come from Tallahassee and Columbus encountering their doppelgängers—played by Luke Wilson and Thomas Middleditch, respectively. Middleditch, while a questionable spouse, is a brilliant bit of casting—one of the few actors who can go toe-to-toe with the typical neurosis of an Eisenberg performance. (Not a knock on the actor, just the kind of roles he inhabits with aplomb.) The film’s standout scene comes when the two characters compare their respective zombie apocalypse rules—or “commandments,” as Middleditch’s Flagstaff calls them, complete with Roman numerals—as the franchise’s trademark CGI text jumps off the screen. It’s by far the nerdiest dick-measuring contest of the year—Billions, eat your heart out.
Bigger doesn’t necessarily mean better, and Double Tap’s aimlessness feels as much a product of the overarching Zombieland vibe as a result of the franchise simply not having much left to do or anything new to say. In theory, lots of time has passed between the two films, but the only impression you get that the quartet’s dynamic has changed—in a decade?—comes from the aging Abigail Breslin, who’s literally become a young adult. (Little Rock leaving the group to hang with people her own age is the inciting incident to get the show on the road.) A generous reading of Double Tap is that the film’s self-awareness extends to this feeling: a meta-commentary on how pointless most comedy sequels tend to be. (Shout-out to Todd Phillips’s Hangover sequels.)
But even viewed through a less-charitable lens, Double Tap’s aimlessness is far from fatal. The original film’s cult status seems indebted not necessarily to its quality—it’s fun enough, and a solid way to pass 80-odd minutes of your time—but the effortless charm of its cast, which make the zombie apocalypse seem like a fun place to hang. That playful spirit is alive in Double Tap, and that’s what really matters. In an era defined by an onslaught of sequels, reboots, and remakes, you can do far worse with your time than a return visit to the United States of Zombieland.