Are Paul Wernick and Rhett Reese the funniest writing team in Hollywood these days or just the hottest? The tandem’s latest is Zombieland 2: Double Tap, the Sony/Columbia Pictures horror comedy that last weekend enjoyed a robust opening ($39 million worldwide box office against a $42 million production budget) despite the intimidating gap (10 years and 16 days) that separated the sequel’s release and the original movie’s opening in October 2009.
Sequels that lag beyond four years risk squandering their marketplace traction (fresh example: that middling Maleficent opening) but Zombieland 2 has already bucked the trend thanks to the charismatic returning cast, the brand’s comedy credibility, and the franchise’s still under-appreciated legacy as a pioneer of the undead sector.
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The pop culture landscape has far more zombies roaming it these days than it did back in 2009. The hungry hordes represent screen projects like The Walking Dead, Fear the Walking Dead, World War Z, iZombie, The Dead Don’t Die, Z Nation, Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, Train to Busan, Warm Bodies, and the upcoming Daybreak. Yes, Zombieland preceded all of those screen brands but that fact doesn’t register with most young fans and won’t count for much with the older fans if the new edition doesn’t set itself apart from the zombie onslaught.
“We think of zombies as a genre not a fad, so it doesn’t scare us away,” Reese said. “It’s been around in a significant way for three or four decades so we’re not worried that it’s going anywhere. But In some ways, [the proliferation] does make it harder because you’re trying to figure out ways that you can differentiate, even as a sequel and as comedy, from what’s out there already and what people have seen before. For us that meant leaning into the idea of 10 years passing, and that the world is darker and more overgrown now, and that zombies have evolved and there’s different types of zombies.”
The new movie certainly breaks new ground. Hollywood now has its first high-caliber showdown with zombies on the White House lawn. It also has a scene with a tricked-out monster truck mowing through walkers and scattering their flesh debris in all directions. Ever seen TV weatherman Al Roker turn into a mindless zombie and beaten with metal folding chair? Highly unlikely, until now. You may have seen the Leaning Tower of Pisa in person or on screen, but when was the last time you saw the landmark dropped like a hammer on an unlucky clutch of rasping Italian zombies?
Even with vivid material of that level, the real allure of the new film rests with the four human hearts beating in the middle of madness, meandering cadavers, and the ragged disrepair of civilization in collapse. The quartet are all over the map in their personas and nicknames: Woody Harrelson is the unrefined ass-kicker called Tallahassee; Jesse Eisenberg is the cerebral but self-possessed Columbus; Emma Stone is wry and flinty as the sometimes moody Wichita; and Abigail Breslin is Little Rock, the once-sunny youngster who a decade later is frustrated with the profound lack of dating options in the post-apocalyptic scene.
And, yes, the returning cast also includes Bill Murray, whose cameo in the first film became the stuff of legend among genre fans, and whose “surprise” appearance in the sequel was undermined by his inclusion in one of the film’s trailers. Reuben Fleischer returns as director and came to the reunion project fresh from the success of Sony’s Venom (which also included Harrelson).
“When you’re in a genre, you keep staring at everyone around you and try. to find the thing that will set you apart,” Reese said. “So we have those moments but what we found is that the thing that sets Zombieland apart is the people. It’s the people, and the characters. It’s the hang-out factor. Do I want to hang out with these four people for an hour-and-a-half? We really focused on that and getting it right and making the zombies a little more incidental. They’re the gravy this time around.”
The visual of zombies dunked in gravy is more unnerving than the movie’s new “ninja zombies” (they’re sneaky) and Terminator zombies (they’re relentless and hard to destroy). The plot of the new film finds the human stars facing those fresh threats as well as internal division and new rivals, such as the competitive Albuquerque (Luke Wilson) and nerdy Flagstaff (Thomas Middleditch), who represent near-doppelgängers for Tallahassee and Columbus.
The original quartet of stars arrived on the set after years of adding to the collective luster as their ensemble. When the original film came out, the quartet has two Oscar-nominated actors within its ranks (Harrelson and Breslin). Now all four have been nominated and have a group total of eight career Oscar nods. Stone is the troupe’s lone Oscar winner to date.
The writers of Zombieland have also attained a higher strata. For Wernick and Reese, the early commercial trajectory of Zombieland 2: Double Tap means the tandem will have an R-rated rainmaker in theaters for the third consecutive year. (Reese and Wernick are executive producers of Double Tap, too, but split the screenwriting credits with Dave Callaham.) They also have a string of high-profile projects with notable collaborators on the horizon, with Clue (Jason Bateman directing and starring with Ryan Reynolds), McScam (Matt Damon starring, Ben Affleck directing), and Spiderhead (with Jospeh Kosinski directing).
The February 2016 opening weekend of Deadpool ($132.4 million in domestic box office) stands as the biggest bow by an R-rated film in Hollywood history. Second on that all-time list? The May 2018 opening of Deadpool 2 (S125 million). The Deadpool 2 victory went into extra innings, too, after Fox rereleased an edited P-13 version of the film with new footage added as a framing device. The PG-13 iteration of the sequel gave the Deadpool franchise its lucrative first chance at China. Wernick and Reese cooked up the framing premise, which was ingeniously simple and flat-out funny: a spoof of bedtime story scenes from The Princess Bride with Fred Savage as a guest star.
Speaking of guest stars and Deadpool, why wasn’t the always game Reynolds in Zombieland 2: Double Tap? Turns out Reese and Wernick tried mightily to include the quick-witted Reynolds into the mix but the in-demand stars schedule (both with his screen projects and his expanding family responsibilities now as a father of three) sabotaged every attempt. The early days plan was for Reynolds to portray Wilson’s character, Albuquerque, the instant adversary of Harrelson’s Tallahassee. The two respond to each other like a pair of betta fish sharing a coffee mug full of water.
“We made it a goal to do only Ryan Reynolds movies ,” Wernick said in a winking tone. “But this one slipped through our fingers. Luke was amazing and it worked out terrific for us.”
The long gap between Zombieland movies was due to scheduling challenges and a focus by all involved that the material live up to the stature of the assembled cast. A third movie is very much a possibility, especially if Double Tap can show some legs. “Woody says he wants to make 10 more of these,” Reese said f the cast enthusiasm. “He has said more than once that he had more fun making the first film than he has on any other set in his career.”
For Reese and Wernick the 2009 movie propelled them toward their now-soaring success by proving itself to be a zombie film that aspired to have a brain and eat them, too. The writing tandem noted that the first Zombieland actually set the stage for The Walking Dead, the massively successful television series on AMC that has tie-in feature films and a second spin-off on the way. Robert Kirkman, the creator of The Walking Dead in its native medium, comic books, even approached Wernick in a theater lobby to shake his hand in appreciation for playing a part in The Walking Dead’s television life, which began with the show’s Halloween night premiere in 2010.
“It was a Deadpool screening many years ago and he came up to me and said that Zombieland really opened the doors for The Walking Dead’s transition to television and to AMC,” Wernick said. “Zombieland really was one of the zombie genre’s first commercial hits. The movies before us mostly had cult followings. Great movies like 28 Days Later and Shaun of the Dead had come out but they really hadn’t hit that commercial spectrum in a way that would inspire studios to take those risks that they’re always fearful of taking. He said that Zombieland’s commercial success actually gave AMC the courage to move forward with the show so he was very complimentary and thankful.”
Asked if Kirkman’s appreciation was also expressed with a paper bag full of $100 bills, Reese groaned. “Yeah, we wish. They could buy and sell us with that Walking Dead money.”
There’s another twist to the Zombieland property’s odyssey. Before the first feature film was locked in, Reese and Wernick shopped the concept around as a primetime television series. That pursuit come close to fruition twice, too, and a “yes” the first time would have likely nixed the possibility of the Zombieland films and could have potentially torpedoed Kirkman’s bid to adapt his Skybound/ Image Comics series (2003-2019) as a small-screen drama.
“We sold it to CBS in 2005 before it became a movie,” Wernick said. “We had the idea of zombies on TV before The Walking Dead, believe it or not, long ago, but obviously CBS didn’t move forward with the pilot. When that didn’t happen Zombieland became the feature we know today.”
If Kirkman and company felt any debt was owed to Zombieland, Reese said the television franchise’s International success has knocked down cultural barriers that would have muted the new film’s foreign appeal.
“I think it’s a little easier for everyone because The Walking Dead sort of firmed the runway for zombie stories for people who didn’t understand them, or get them or really know what they were all about. A lot of people thought of it as a fringe or cult thing but then The Walking Dead pushed zombies into the mainstream even more then we did. I think that’s going to help us with box-office overseas in some places that didn’t really know what zombies were before.”
What are the chances that Zombieland could still expand its apocalypse saga to the small screen? Could the horror comedy shamble in the footsteps of bog-screen emigrants like Fargo, Lethal Weapon, Heathers, Hannibal, to name just a few? The duo said they don’t see that happening.
“I doubt it, we went down that path twice already,” Reese said. “We did it as an original pilot that sold [to CBS] but then did not get made. And then a pilot for Amazon a few years back [after the first feature film] and then that also didn’t happen. So I think we’re sticking to the movie realm for now. Although we joke that there could be a great Zombieland Broadway musical, too, but I think we’re only half-joking. It could be fun. Or it could be terrible, too. It’s fun to think about but for sure It’s a high-risk, high-reward proposition.”