Zombieland is a fun, fast-paced, kick-ass, zombie movie. It clocks in at roughly 83 minutes, delivering eye-popping visuals with a tight, economical story to boot. It’s a great screenplay for the aspiring screenwriter to study. While the voice-overs are entertaining, and in a sense, help define the style, they are completely unnecessary. The protagonist tells the audience his exact feelings — on-the-nose dialogue — at crucial beats. In the world of story, there’s a little rule — show don’t tell — but then again, some rules are made to be broken.
Zombieland Screenplay: The History
Screenwriters Paul Wernick & Rhett Reese originally intended Zombieland as a TV series. Sold to CBS in 2005, the two developed the show with executives, but never got the chance to film a pilot. They were certainly ahead of the curve. Though the tone is most certainly different, The Walking Dead was extremely successful in its first season (now let’s see how AMC does without Darabont). Here, Rhett and Paul comment on the similarities with Zombieland the film, and Zombieland the TV show:
Rhett: What we had in mind [for the TV show] was starting with four characters who were very dissimilar, so they would necessarily butt heads, and we wanted to slowly introduce new characters as we moved forward, and either kill them off or let them survive. But the freewheeling nature of the first hour of the movie was very much what we intended to extend out to a full season.
Paul: Obviously there was a lot less gore for television. The set pieces got bigger and badder as it moved to a feature.
Rhett: You’ll also see some vestiges of the idea we had for the pilot in the movie. For instance, the zombie kill of the week. That was going to be every week in the television show, whatever the zombie kill of the week was. We also had a segment that we called viewer e-mails, which would be Columbus and Tallahassee responding to purported viewer mail. 1
In 2007, the guys were given an opportunity to write another pilot, this time as a made-for-TV movie, even getting the chance to meet with John Carpenter, who showed interest in directing. When the project evolved into a feature film, music video and commercial director, Ruben Fleischer, was brought in and helped develop the script into what we see today. Most notably, it was Fleischer who suggested Zombieland‘s Pacific Playland third act. According to Rhett, Fleischer also guided their approach to the physicality of the zombies.
Yes, I think the decision that Ruben made was to treat zombie-ism like a disease that could go through progressions and it might impair some people so they would be moving a little slower. The zombies in our movie are not undead. They’re living people with a virus so they don’t have that shambling, shuffling thing going on. But I do think that the basic idea is that they’re in some way impaired by the virus and so some are moving quicker than others. And other times it came down to the extra who was playing the zombie. If the person wasn’t very fast, it was a slow zombie… Particularly in the grocery store, those guys were not moving at great speeds because they were rather large. 2
Released in October 2009, Zombieland earned $75.5 million at the domestic box office, making it the highest-grossing zombie film to ever play in theaters across the United States. 3
Zombieland Screenplay: The Theme
Home is where you make it, but Columbus never really had one to begin with. He describes his parents as paranoid shut-ins. Looking at his life before the zombies took over, you can see it’s affected him as a young adult. The deep wounds for their destroyed homes have scarred all the characters. With Tallahassee, he’s trying to escape the memory of his. It’s easily the most touching moment in the film, discovering the loss of his dog was really a mask for loss of his child. His search, or better yet, obsession with Twinkies keeps his mind from the pain. It’s a metaphor for something ideal, something sweet — something he hasn’t got to taste in far too long. With the girls, you have two sisters on a mission to revisit a vacation spot from their childhood, Pacific Playland. It was a time when life was innocent, they had loving parents, and were happy. After enduring an epic battle with hordes of zombies at Pacific Playland, they all seem to realize that family, or their home, is where they choose to make it.
Zombieland Screenplay: The Structure
The interesting thing about Zombieland‘s screenplay structure is the telling of the inciting incident in flashback, well after the standard ten minute mark for most Hollywood movies. Not only does the inciting incident introduce the zombie problem and upset the balance of the protagonist’s world, it throws both the internal (to trust no one) and external (to find his family) goals into play. Again, the placement is unique. With the use of flashback, the inciting incident occurs at minute eighteen, where the Strong Movement Forward beat typically falls. It’s the Strong Movement Forward beat at minute ten that gives us Columbus’s first step on the external line of action — to get home to his family. The screenwriters made a smart move by putting that goal in direct conflict with his internal goal of not trusting anyone. If Columbus wants to make it to Ohio, he’s gotta place some trust in a total stranger.
Zombieland Screenplay: The Beats
Strong Movement Forward — minute 10 — Columbus hitches a ride with Tallahassee. It’s his first step on the external line of action — to find his family — that happens to be in direct conflict with his internal line of action — to trust no one.
Inciting Incident — minute 18 — Told in flashback, the shut-in’s lucky enough to have a damsel-in-distress beg her way into his apartment. Unfortunately, his luck runs out when she turns into a zombie and he’s forced to kill her.
End of Act One Turn — minute 25 — On one of Tallahassee’s Twinkie missions, the guys run into two sisters, one of which has been bitten by a zombie. The beautiful Wichita asks Columbus to put her sister, Little Rock, out of her misery.
Decision — minute 26 – Columbus can’t kill Little Rock. He turns over his shotgun to Tallahassee, but Wichita tricks Tallahassee into giving her the gun and the guys find themselves robbed of their weapons and vehicle. Trusting people is so damn hard in Zombieland.
First Trial / First Casualty — minute 37 –The guys attempt to outsmart the girls, but find themselves taken again. When Tallahassee’s finally had enough, he yanks the gun from Little Rock, but Wichita slams on the brakes and puts her gun on him. With Ohio on his mind, Columbus pleads with everyone to trust each other:
For fuck sakes, we are being chased by ravenous freaks! We don’t have enough problems?! Oh, they stole my hummer...we have trust issues! Well, get over it!
Midpoint (external) — minute 39 — Talking with Wichita, Columbus discovers his home town has been destroyed by the zombies. His family is gone. This is a disaster on the external line. There’s no more external goal at this point.
Midpoint (internal) — minute 41 — Columbus falls head over heels for Wichita. His love, or lust for Wichita is a false-positive. The closer he gets to her, the more he’ll have to trust her. For a guy like Columbus, that doesn’t come easy. It’s here that Columbus develops a new external goal — to find a new family.
It wasn’t just because I had nowhere else to go. It was, cause, in that moment it became clear: where ever this girl was, that’s the place I wanted to be.
Assumption of Power (external) — minute 57 — During Tallahassee’s story about his long lost dog, Columbus realizes everyone, not just him, is missing their home. It brings Columbus closer to his external goal of finding a new family. Empathy can build trust. Trust can build a family when blood isn’t the common denominator.
I felt so ashamed that it had taken me this long. Me, with the best card in the business, to realize I wasn’t the only one running from something.
Assumption of Power (internal) — minute 60-62 — Columbus and Wichita share stories from their past. Columbus tells a story of being rejected at an 8th grade dance. Wichita then offers to dance with him. Sharing the story of rejection brings him closer on his internal line of action. He trusts her enough to reveal something intimate.
End of Act Two Turn — minute 64 — Columbus wakes to discover both Wichita and Little Rock have gone. After an evening drinking Bill Murray’s wine and slow dancing, Columbus got close to Wichita. It was too close for the girl, though.
Decision — minute 67 — Columbus decides to go after the girls. He’s in love with her. Like he said at the midpoint, “where ever this girl was, that’s the place I wanted to be.” Little does he know, he’ll have to face a psycho zombie clown to save her.
Point of No Return — minute 79 — With the girls in a life-threatening situation, Columbus realizes his precious Zombieland survival rules were made to be broken. He must face two of his greatest fears — zombies and clowns — with a fierce zombie clown standing between him and his woman. He takes out that “fucking clown” and saves the girls without a scratch. He’s not much of a coward anymore.
Climax — minute 82 — Zombieland‘s climax brings together both lines of action for Columbus, fully representing the theme. After fighting off all Pacific Playland zombies, Columbus destroys an entire box of Twinkies, shattering Tallahassee’s hope of ever eating one. Outside, they hear the SUV begin to pull away. Columbus runs outside to find the girls leaving. He screams, and miraculously, the SUV stops. Both girls get out and look back at the guys. Little Rock tosses a Twinkie to Tallahassee and his face lights up like a kid on Christmas morning. Columbus narrates…
That face, that’s me realizing that those smart girls in that big black truck, and that big guy in that snake skin jacket...they were the closest to something I’d always wanted, but never really had. A family. I trusted them and they trusted me... And even though life would never be simple or easy again, as he savored that spongy, yellow log of cream, we had hope. We had each other. And without other people, well, you might as well be a zombie.
Zombieland Screenplay: The Analysis
I’ve provided full Zombieland screenplay analysis available for download, which breaks down the protagonist’s characterization, misbehaviors, internal and external goals, theme, central dramatic question, story engines, plus a complete beat breakdown with all the setups and payoffs a great film can provide. All of this is based on Daniel P. Calvisi’s Story Maps method. Dan is a story analyst, screenplay consultant, author and screenwriter. If you’re serious about the craft of screenwriting, I highly recommend checking out Dan’s site, Act Four Screenplays, and his e-book, Story Maps: How to Write a GREAT Screenplay. You can purchase Dan’s e-book from Amazon.com or the iTunes Store.
- Rich, Katey. “Exclusive Interview: Zombieland Writers Paul Wernick And Rhett Reese.” CinemaBlend.com. 1 Oct. 2009. Web. 22 Aug. 2011. Link. ↩
- Billington, Alex. “Interview: Zombieland Writers Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick.” FirstShowing.net. 17 Aug. 2009. Web. 22 Aug. 2011. Link. ↩
- “Zombie Movies at the Box Office.” Box Office Mojo. Link. ↩