Zombieland is a goofy undead movie first, an existential one second and finally a comedy as well. It has a penchant for breaking the fourth wall, often through the use of on-screen text as props to aid audience recollection. This makes it a primary member of the “zom-com” genre.
We follow Columbus, a dork who’s somehow managed to survive a massive zombie apocalypse thanks to the diligent practice of a set of rules. A few minutes into the movie, we see him team up with Tallahassee, a manic trigger-happy man armed to the teeth and out to kill any and all zombies in his way. Soon they are also joined by Wichita and Little Rock, both of whom are con-artists and looking to go to “Pacific Playland”, an amusement park. On their way there, they also hang out at Bill Murray’s mansion in Hollywood and accidentally kill him thinking that he’s a zombie. Once they get to the park and it turn “on”, it lights up like a huge lamp in the middle of night and starts to attract zombies from all around. Using this as an opportunity to practice their various skills, we see them shoot the hell out of these hordes of zombies and win each other’s trust in the process.
The only reason Columbus is out on the road is in the hopes of finding out if his parents have managed to survive the apocalypse. We discover that Tallahassee had a son who he lost in the zombie apocalypse and that his only real motivation to live anymore is to find a good box of twinkies. Wichita too is only interested in finding her way to “Pacific Playland” because of her younger sister who wants to experience it once more. Over the course of the film, we also see Wichita and Columbus get to know each other better and start to fall in love with each other.
The primary theme of the movie is the existential threat that humanity faces in the event of a zombie apocalypse. Modern infrastructure affords to us so many privileges and facilities that are essentially built for medium term usage. Often motivations to obtain these may be dictated by your traditions, culture and even the corporations around you. Common examples of such ideas are growing a family, buying a house, obtaining a bigger car and getting a better job. Most people in the world will end up aiming for one or more of these medium term “goals”. The real problem arises once you have a massive “black swan” event like the zombie virus as portrayed. Society crumbles to such an extent that you cannot expect any of the well known institutions to be in place. Without the surrounding society to make use of the various facilities mentioned above, it also doesn’t make sense to take any efforts in that direction. For example, saving up to buy a car is useless if there is no one who you can visit with that car. Similar arguments invalidate the all such medium-term motivations that most modern humans have.
Essentially, the humans end up optimizing for one of two extremes, as those are the only two realistic outcomes of any given situation in an apocalypse. The first set of goals are short term and very achievable goals like going to pacific playland, finding a twinkie etc. The other extreme is literal death at the hands of zombies. This enforced dichotomy is readily apparent in each and every character. The only thing that we see them plan for is the really short term and the possibility of death. We see them make frantic efforts to avoid death and also savour the smaller, more organic moments as much as possible.
A second way of looking at the film is the idea that we already live in a kind of Zombieland. One where anyone who is solely focused on aiming for the mid-term is completely missing the smaller things in life. The zombies in this case are essentially modern humans who’re stuck in a race to the mid-term goals. After achieving them, the next logical step is death. Most “real” zombies have been desensitized to the emotional aspects of life; they’ve been reprogrammed to become the ideal consumers, bothered only with what is manufactured in abundance by corporations. The relevant behaviour being that zombies are self-propagating and will immediately try to convert anyone who isn’t already aligned with their opinions. We’re essentially faced with an insurmountable and constant onslaught of attempts to direct our motivations to sellable things. Tallahassee’s rule is again our guiding light here: enjoy the little things, they may not come back.
Drawing out any meaning is a particularly challenging task in this one, as it very decidedly doesn’t take itself seriously. It does that effectively enough that you won’t notice the thematic incoherence over all the gunfire and zombie gurgling.