Unlike vampires, zombies have always shuffled around on the fringes of popular culture, seen more often in low-budget cult films than at the multiplex.
But the brain-hungry undead are breaking down the door to the mainstream in two of this week’s big entertainment releases — the Windows PC and Xbox 360 game, Left 4 Dead 2, and the Woody Harrelson zom-com, Zombieland. The basic premise of each title is so similar that Zombieland could very well be Left 4 Dead: The Movie.
Taking a cue from UK zomedy, Shaun of the Dead, Zombieland is an endearingly goofy brew of splattered viscera and offbeat humour. Directed by the relatively unknown Ruben Fleischer, Zombieland blends conventions of road movies, zombie flicks and even rom-com into an enjoyable action-comedy.
The film lacks the British insouciance of Shaun of the Dead, substituting it with big-budget effects and a feel-good message among the carnage. The film throws together four survivors of a catastrophe that has turned most of the world’s human populations into zombies.
Each survivor names himself or herself after an American city, figuring that real names lead to real attachments that none can afford. Harrelson is Tallahassee, a laconic and half-crazy loner who lives for Twinkies and killing zombies, while Jesse Eisenberg (of indie films like The Squid & the Whale and Adventureland) is a neurotic and stereotypically geeky World of Warcraft fan named Columbus. They’re joined by Wichita (Emma Stone), a young grifter, and her 12 year-old sister, Little Rock.
Together, the four are heading for an amusement park in California because they have nowhere else to go than the site of some of the two sisters’ happiest memories and presumably because the director wanted somewhere cool to stage his climactic set pieces. Look out for a cameo by one of America’s funniest men during the middle part of the film — it’s Zombieland’s highlight.
The zombies in Zombieland aren’t particularly menacing — they exist mainly to be dispatched in a number of comically inventive ways. There is some blood and guts, but Zombieland is far too good-natured to plumb the graphic excesses of George Romero’s classic zombie films or their later remakes.
In tone, it’s not a million miles from John Cusack’s hitman comedy, Grosse Point Blank. There are many moments of affectionate parody and homage that will remind fans of the sub-genre of zombie games and films they’ve experienced in the past.
Of the two releases, Left 4 Dead 2 is the scarier one. Developer Valve — best-known for the Half-Life first person shooter (FPS) franchise — has somehow managed to plug right into the fight-or-flight limbic system with this game. Even more remarkable is that the game is built from the ground up as a cooperative shooter when most survival horror games build fear through a sense of isolation.
The game is a sequel to last year’s multi-million seller Left 4 Dead — and one of the few criticisms that can be directed at the title is that it arrives a little too soon after its predecessor. But anyone who loved the first will be happy with the many new guns, monsters and gameplay modes that the sequel adds into the mix, alongside brand new maps and campaigns.
The fundamentals of Left 4 Dead remain in place: the game traces four survivors of an apocalypse as they try to outrun and outgun an endless army of ‘infected’ humans. However, the gameplay has been sharpened up with much improved level design and a tough-as-nails realism mode.
Getting separated from the group in Left 4 Dead 2 inevitably means death. Many ‘special infected’ have the ability to render survivors helpless, for example by pinning them to the ground or binding them up with their long tongues and dragging them away.
The only way to escape is for a friend to kill the infected that has nailed you down — and you better hope your team mate shoots accurately because friendly fire really hurts. The sense of shared panic when a character in the game calls out the presence of a particularly nasty special infected is palpable.
Survivors can also heal each other and revive a KO’d friend, though items such as ammunition, bombs, adrenalin boosters and health packs are in short supply. Carefully managing these precious resources as a group as you work your way to the end of a level packed with limitless undead is one of the game’s main challenges.
The star of the game is the sadistic artificial intelligence (AI) director, which orchestrates each campaign on the fly by choosing the undead it will throw at the survivors, picking the weapons and items it will make available for players, and even selecting appropriate music and weather conditions for the action.
The AI director is versatile and unpredictable enough to ensure that every campaign playthrough offers a subtly different experience. And if you’re doing too well, it ratchets up the difficulty to keep you on your toes.
In addition to the cooperative modes, the game also features a number of undead versus survivors competitive modes. Leaping on top of a hapless human survivor as a hunter or storming a group of opposition players as a behemoth-like tank that can soak up massive amounts of damage is as much fun as the co-op game.
One aspect of the game that hasn’t improved is the friendly AI. Though AI team mates are crack shots, they’re not particularly smart about how they use items. Especially at higher difficulty levels, you’re going to want human players watching your back, making the game a poor buy if you don’t play online.
The Source engine, the same one used for Half-Life 2, is starting to show its age, but does an admirable job coping with the masses of infected the game will throw at you in an average session. The new locales in the American South — bayous, amusement parks, highways, New Orleans city scenes — are beautifully realised and the zombies are suitably disgusting.
Melee weapons such as chainsaws, katanas, and even frying pans are now available as replacements for the handgun each survivor starts out with. The game’s engine has been upgraded to show dismemberings and decapitations of infected beaten with an electric guitar or fire axe.
These weapons are well-balanced — formidable enough to cut a swathe through most normal undead, but not so powerful as to make the game too easy. Indeed, that level of careful balance is reflected in every element of the game’s design. — Lance Harris, TechCentral
Warning! The following trailer contains graphic visuals…