Most unexpected sequels — the kinds of movies you see a trailer of in theaters and ask your seatmate, “Did that really need a sequel?” — are usually watered-down retreads of the original movie. They either make you miss what made the first movie so fun or memorable, or, at worst, make you question why you liked that original film in the first place.
Fortunately, “Zombieland: Double Tap” dodges many of the signs of sequel fatigue by acknowledging the ten-year gap between movies and developing the characters from where they started. Their adventures take on delicious new turns but never stray too far from the original idea of what it means to be a family when most of humanity has turned into brain-eating corpses.
Remarkably, all four members of the original gang are back for another round: The neurotic and bookish Columbus (Jesse Eisenberg) is much less of a lonely college boy thanks to his relationship with Wichita (Emma Stone), who’s still as flighty and moody as when she was first introduced a decade ago. Since then, her younger sister Little Rock (Abigail Breslin) is little no longer and has started to resent the couple’s relationship and their ragtag family’s de facto patriarch, the trigger-happy Tallahassee (Woody Harrelson).
Wichita and Little Rock run off again — it’s one of several callbacks to 2009’s “Zombieland” — leaving the guys to deal with a half-empty household. Being that there’s danger in every corner of Zombieland, whether it’s a pacifist musician (Avan Jogia from “Now Apocalypse,” as Berkeley) who doesn’t believe in killing zombies or running into an almost complete copy of yourself, it’s not long before Columbus’ old rules for zombie apocalypse survival come in handy.
Like its predecessor, “Zombieland: Double Tap” has a bit of mean streak and a fondness for gross humor, especially where zombies are concerned. In this new movie, the world of Zombieland feels much more expansive and less isolated. Perhaps not everyone outside the main group is on board with Tallahassee’s violent version of dealing with life and zombies, which seemed to go on unchallenged in the first film. Speaking of which, if you haven’t seen “Zombieland” lately and want to see “Double Tap,” the new movie is full of fan service nods to the original (including the sequel’s title and Columbus’ love for both Code Red Mountain Dew and the girl in Apartment 406) throughout the sequel.
Director Ruben Fleischer (“Venom”) returns to guide the sequel to his 2009 movie for yet another zippy and silly whirlwind road trip. He doubles down on squeezing in even more zombie kills even as he lays off using slow motion as often outside the opening credits. Once again, Eisenberg’s voiceover leads the way through a zany story, meticulously explaining the new types of zombies, occasionally veering off into tangents where we see more gruesome zombie kills as well as animated texts popping up around characters to show Columbus’ still-growing list of rules.
“The Expendables” writer Dave Callaham joins original “Zombieland” scripters Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick to add more characters for our leads to deal with, along with pop-culture punchlines (which got some of the biggest laughs from my screening audience) and weirder scenarios to keep us guessing.
Some of the fresh blood that reinvigorates the “Zombieland” franchise belongs to Rosario Dawson as a mysterious Elvis-obsessed survivor known as Nevada; it seems like the trend of using cities for names has caught on outside our main group. There are more women in the mix, but essentially, all of them feel distant in Columbus’ singular point of view.
In what could have been a dismally uninspired part, Zoey Deutch plays a millennial Marilyn Monroe type who falls into the lap of a heartbroken Columbus with boundless energy and pep. Like Monroe’s character in “Gentlemen Prefer Blondes,” Deutch’s Madison is constantly looked down upon for the way she talks and behaves, but she’s smart when the occasion calls for it and occasionally even gets to have the last laugh.
That’s not to say “Zombieland: Double Tap” is not without its bumps. There are moments where the movie toes the boundary of what’s funny and what’s a tired cliché too closely, and occasionally it crosses over into “neither funny nor clever” territory, like when Berkeley, who becomes Little Rock’s new love interest, is first seen on-screen; the ambiguously ethnic character is accompanied by sitar music, and he greets the audience with “Namaste.” He barely improves as the movie wears on, so you either have to laugh at the low-bar hippie jokes or cringe whenever he’s on-screen.
Always politically incorrect and uncouth, Tallahassee remains almost entirely unchanged from 2009, a living fossil as it were. In the sequel, other characters point out his most egregious statements in a kind of semi-meta-comedy turn even as the audience is laughing at his outbursts and vulgar references. Also, stick around through the credits for two post-credit sequences that again heavily reference the original.
In the first “Zombieland,” there were few other humans to keep this band of misfits company (RIP fake zombie Bill Murray). Now, it seems like there are few others who could keep up with this roaming pack of lone wolves who lovingly snipe at each other, and that’s OK. They’re not meant to get along with everyone.
Most importantly, “Zombieland: Double Tap” continues the original’s cheeky tone and irreverent humor, while it also acknowledges that it’s a series a little out of place and time with the current political age. But if all you’re looking for is “Shaun of the Dead,” but American, then this is the movie for you.