It’s safe to say that my expectations weren’t high going into Zombieland: Double Tap. I have fond, though vague, memories of the first film, released back in 2009 … but comedy sequels don’t have a great track record. For every 22 Jump Street or Bad Neighbours 2, there’s a Zoolander No. 2 or Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues. Hollywood comedies tend to succeed by defying expectations, and that’s a tricky thing to do in a sequel.
With my expectations sufficiently lowered, I found Double Tap quite enjoyable. Oh, it’s light-hearted and often lazy, relying on a combination of sarcastic cynicism, shotgun blasts and fanservice for a film you’ve mostly forgotten about. But the film’s appeal is its easy-going vibe, driven by the chemistry between its returning foursome – Emma Stone, Jesse Eisenberg, Woody Harrelson and a largely-sidelined Abigail Breslin – and that’s retained largely unscathed in the ten-years-later follow-up.
Double Tap’s whole vibe is very 2009. Where most contemporary comedies make a point of underlining their progressive bonafides (case in point: Bad Neighbours 2, which injected a healthy dose of third wave feminism into a frathouse comedy), returning director Ruben Fleischer makes a point of retaining the original film’s crudeness and cynicism. Case in point: despite picking up an Oscar in the intervening years, Emma Stone’s character is largely relegated to rolling her eyes and offering up the occasional ironic bon mot as Eisenberg and Harrelson maintain a monopoly over the driver’s seat. The main butts of the jokes here are a hippie (played by Now Apocalypse’s Avan Jogia) and a valley girl (impressively realised by Zoey Deutch); hardly transgressive, modern humour here. It’s low stakes and often lazy, but that’s as much a selling point as a criticism.
All this punching down allows the film to act as an autocritique of modern zombie movies. I’ll acknowledge this is likely accidental; there’s nothing in Fleischer’s filmography (Venom, Gangster Squad) to suggest he has a skerrick of subversiveness. But, still. Ever since George Romero revolutionised zombies with Night of the Living Dead, the genre has operated as a pessimistic excoriation of community (or lack thereof).
Good zombie stories offer memorable critique aspects of society, from consumerism (Dawn of the Dead) through militarisation (28 Days Later) to authority in general (as in my favourite zombie flick, punk-rock classic Return of the Living Dead). Bad zombie stories tend to slide in the sludge of ill-directed pessimism, where everyone else is stupid and selfish and misguided: think the way Walking Dead (which receives an obligatory shoutout in Double Tap) increasingly resolves that everyone except its protagonists are idiots, while the lead characters’ actions (often astoundingly dumb actions) are the right choice. This feels like a very American perspective – community is important, but only insofar as it extends to your insular community (or “family”) and its values.
Intentionally or otherwise, Double Tap vividly represents the contradictions and hypocrisies of capital-A Americana. Our heroes and heroines are American through-and-through. They love Elvis, guns and big cars. They consume to the point of gluttony – Double Tap’s first act is set almost entirely within the White House, as our protagonists pillage 1600 Pennsylvania’s most valuable relics for laughs – but turn up their noses at the Valley girl archetype, an unambiguous incarnation of unashamed consumerism. Since this is an American comedy movie, they love weed – but of course they hate hippies, and pacifism, and every other jot of progressive culture that might be associated with marijuana. This is never really interrogated – Fleischer clearly just wants to have fun – but Double Tap ends up operating as an incredible encapsulation of American self-interest.
Not that any of this is what you’ll be buying a ticket for. Zombieland: Double Tap will sell tickets off the promise of exploding zombies and sarcastic asides. Thankfully, it has both in droves. But if you’re hoping for a sequel that has evolved with the times, you’d best look elsewhere.