Is there any life left in the zombie movie? The genre was hauled out of the grave in the early 2000s by Zack Snyder’s jolting Dawn of the Dead remake and Danny Boyle’s near-perfect 28 Days Later, and the subsequent zombie revival has given us zombie comedies, zombie video-game movies, zombie TV serials, three genuine George A. Romero movies, and Pride and Prejudice and Zombies. But apart from season umpteen of The Walking Dead and rumors of a World War Z sequel, the undead have quieted of late, awaiting the next lightning bolt, the next experiment gone wrong.
Into that relative quiet two new zombie flicks come lurching, one of which deserves a rapid burial. A decade ago, when Emma Stone was an ingénue and Jesse Eisenberg hadn’t yet been defined indelibly by Aaron Sorkin’s version of Mark Zuckerberg, they appeared together in Zombieland, a charming-enough zom-com that took a knowing, winking approach to the clichés of the genre. The movie’s characters went by the names of their now zombie-ravaged hometowns: Eisenberg played Columbus, Stone was Wichita, and they were teamed up with Tallahassee (Woody Harrelson) and Little Rock (Abigail Breslin), respectively the hardened older zombie-killer and the grown-up-too-fast kid. They rambled the country, shot zombies, encountered Bill Murray (playing himself), shot more zombies . . . look, I’ll be honest, it was ten years ago, the Bill Murray part is about all I really remember.
Now, for some reason (specifically that the writers of the original wrote the huge-hit Deadpool movies and apparently this was what they wanted to do with their newfound clout), we have a ten-years-later sequel, Zombieland 2: Double Tap. Except that it isn’t set ten years later but a far shorter period after the original, requiring a certain suspension of disbelief as you contemplate the haggard-looking Eisenberg, the Hollywood-gaunt Stone, the plump and busty and ghost-white Breslin, all shot in a light best described as highly unflattering, and try to link their current visages to their decade-younger selves.
The contemplation of time’s ravages is more interesting than most of the film’s action. The script has one good joke, which requires remembering that rideshare companies had barely been founded when the original movie came out, and which is delivered by one of the new characters, Madison (Zoey Deutch), whose dumb-blonde antics I found initially annoying before deciding that she was still a more interesting character than any of the returning four. With Madison and assorted others dropping in and dropping out, the foursome drive around the country, there are cameos, there is self-referential humor, hippies as well as blondes get mocked . . . and really, even by the standards of for-the-paycheck sequels, it’s remarkable how little the leads bother to hide their boredom, which I promise that the audience quickly comes to share.
Residual goodwill from the original seems likely to make Double Tap profitable, but if you have a zombie itch to scratch and want to reward something more original, I recommend staying home instead and watching Little Monsters on Hulu (which, like Netflix, is now debuting original movies on its streaming service), swapping the tedium of a useless sequel for the zombie-beheading skills of Lupita Nyong’o.
However, this recommendation comes with a qualifier that I have never had to make before: The movie in question was executive-produced by my younger sister, now a junior Hollywood power player, and thus every opinion I might venture about Monsters is highly suspect, tainted by blood ties.
So I’ll take a just-the-facts approach: This is an Aussie-set movie about a washed-up singer and failed boyfriend (Alex England) who volunteers to chaperone his kindergartner nephew’s field trip because he has a crush on Nyong’o’s teacher, Miss Caroline. The field trip brings the class to a petting zoo where an annoying kids’-TV personality named “Teddy Giggles” (Josh Gad) is making an appearance; the destination also has the misfortune to be next door to a military base, so that when the base’s quarantine fails and some of its groaning experiments get loose, the kids are the first item on the zombie menu. Or they would be, if Nyong’o didn’t have the necessary cool head, the essential facility with a shovel, and a gift for convincing the kids that the shamblers stalking them are all part of an elaborate game, which they can play without panicking until a way opens to escape.
Now I’ll add some quick, untrustworthy opinions. Before Miss Caroline shows up, the movie is a little too pleased with the shock of its cute-kids-meet-cursing-grownups setup, and Gad’s character never quite escapes that cul-de-sac. But Nyong’o, radiant in a sunflower dress, is everything that Stone and Eisenberg and Harrelson aren’t in the second Zombieland: a star fully committed to her role and to her story, whether she’s plucking out Taylor Swift chords on the ukulele to calm the kids or dancing between the slow-moving zombies to rescue the epinephrine of one of her charges.
Little Monsters isn’t built to kick off the next zombie renaissance, but it’s the right choice if you want a dose of the undead this Halloween — or if you just want your dollars to go toward the important cause of building my family’s Hollywood empire, one shambling, flesh-eating nightmare at a time.
This article appears as “The Undying Undead” in the November 11, 2019, print edition of National Review.