A decade after Zombieland became a hit film and cult classic, the original cast reunite with veteran director Ruben Fleischer (Venom, TV’s “Superstore”) and screenwriters Rhett Reese & Paul Wernick – who wrote the screenplay for Zombieland: Double Tap with Dave Callaham.
No one could have predicted the cult following that would transpire when the first Zombieland was released. The now iconic zomedy, a genre-bending horror/comedy that cheekily chronicled the fight between the living dead and the surviving ass-kickers, ushered in a new zombie era. With director Ruben Fleischer, writers Rhett Reese & Paul Wernick’s zippy screenplay, and an insanely talented and kinetic cast – Woody Harrelson, Jesse Eisenberg, Emma Stone, and Abigail Breslin — Zombieland achieved critical and commercial success, grossing over 100 million dollars worldwide.
“Part of why it has become so beloved by people is because it has a lot of heart and it’s really about the characters and their relationships as much as about shooting zombie’s heads off,” says Fleischer. “And the script was hilarious and completely original. I give so much credit to Rhett and Paul for writing such an amazing script that launched this whole journey. But then it was brought to life by the cast.”
“With regards to Zombieland, the zombies, the action, the fun, the personality, the explosions, the pyrotechnics—that’s just gravy to us,” agrees Reese. “What we really care about is these four people. We like to see the sparks fly when they’re together, and that’s what really drives the story—and people’s love of Zombieland. You just want to hang out with these people.”
Such a beloved cult classic surely warranted its own franchise, so why did it take over 10 years for fans to get a sequel?
“The challenge was getting a script worthy of making a second movie,” says Fleischer.
For the director, who has gone on to helm many films including Venom and Gangster Squad, it was also imperative that the original Zombieland cast approved. Zombieland had been his directorial debut and trying to create that lightning in a bottle for a second time would be like, well, resurrecting the dead. “Their feeling was the first movie was so beloved, we can’t enter into this unless we have one that’s at least as good if not better than the original.”
Reese & Wernick were inundated with projects over the course of the past 10 years (including the mega-hit Deadpool franchise), but the cast and crew waited patiently for them to work their magic again. “There were probably 10 scripts over the last 10 years, but it never felt worthy of making a sequel,” says Eisenberg. “Finally the script was just so great, like it would be a fantastic stand-alone movie even if it wasn’t associated with the first one.”
“We had to wink a little bit at the success of the genre, because we feel like we did reinvigorate the genre in 2009,” says Reese. “So when we revisited the genre, I think it was more a question of, how do we find an original story and also justify why we had been away for ten years in the mind of the audience?”
“It’s a mix of comedy and action and drama and romance. The tone’s a delicate dance, especially on this one,” says Wernick. “That includes some of the nods we make to Walking Dead comic and in the White House. The zombie genre has evolved, and so we’re just trying to catch people up with the times.”
“They made it so special, and I think that’s the reason that we all wanted to come back,” says Stone. Harrelson, who Fleischer says was the most discerning about the sequel script, agrees: “They hit a homerun. They’re just incredible writers. And they finally cracked it.”
As in the first Zombieland, the script was just a jumping off point. Fleischer’s is known for being extraordinarily collaborative, creating the perfect recipe of great story and genuinely hilarious, thoughtful, and no-holds-barred actors. Add the chemistry of the cast members and the director’s wry sense of humor, and you’ve got a team effort echoing the core four’s zombie-busting passion.
For Harrelson, a return to Zombieland also meant a return to fun. “People always ask me: what movie was the most fun for you to make? And I think the first Zombieland was in the top three of the funniest movies I ever made,” he says. “Ruben, our fearless leader, is such an amazing director and really open to everybody trying new things. And then the cast. It’s one of those things, it’s hard to be in a bad mood. If you came to set in a bad mood it’s just gonna flip eventually because everybody is so funny and so cool. It’s like going to work at a playground.”
Whereas the first film centered on the core four loners on a road trip through the zombie apocalypse that ultimately become a makeshift family, the second focuses on keeping that family together. Similar to the first film, the writers give us a world that straddles the line between terrifying and hilarious.
Says Wernick, “We really wanted to tap into the idea that the post apocalypse is a still wonderful albeit lawless place. Think about it – you could drive any car you want, live where ever you want, or even kill with reckless abandon. Anything goes.”
Of course, it didn’t hurt that the cast had developed into a family of their own, staying in touch over the years and carrying their onscreen chemistry to real life.
“It’s just such a fun dynamic,” says Eisenberg. “The random luck of us being nice, normal, funny people makes it work so well. You can put us in any kind of context, and it will always be interesting and entertaining because the interactions we have are endlessly workable.”
“We’ve all remained pretty close, so it doesn’t really feel like a reunion in the sense that we haven’t talked to each other, including Ruben. It feels like getting to hang out with my buddies and goof around. It’s been really special and very uplifting to be around everybody again,” says Stone, who was the first to acknowledge the 10-year anniversary.
“Emma said, ‘This gives it real purpose, and think we should make Zombieland every 10 years,’” says Fleischer. “We all know Woody’s going to outlive us all, so we can just do this every ten years until one of us, probably not Woody, is gone. And so, I’m on board with that.”
When we find the core four — Columbus, Tallahassee, Wichita, and Little Rock — they’ve settled into their little family and new life together at The White House. Yes, The White House.
One of the hallmarks of the original Zombieland is The Rules, Columbus’s guidelines on how to survive a zombie apocalypse that pop up on the screen during key moments. The most important? The Double Tap: taking great care to shoot a zombie twice to assure their extermination. Unfortunately for our heroes, the zombies have now evolved and they’re now faced with the T-800s, a Terminator-like species that’s relentless and notoriously hard to kill.
Special Effects Makeup Production Head Tony Gardner is no stranger to all things zombie. As the designer of the original zombies, Gardner was now responsible for maintaining the original look but also creating the newly evolved versions. Though our zombies themselves have evolved, their look — solidified in the original film (well, maybe not solidified, our zombies are piles of drool and bile and puss) — is still very much the disgusting LOOK audiences have to come to love/be grossed out and completely terrified by.
“Being able to come back after ten years and have our original design still hold up is awesome,” he says. “In order to come up with new designs, we started with the classic zombie musts. Flushed faces, wet and runny skin, mismatched eyes and lots of black blood. With the basics in place, we began breaking down the new zombies, which include four new versions.”
- The Homer – This zombie is the epitome of overweight, slow and dumb as rocks, which usually lends itself to them dying in some horrible way. “Homers just chase blood and have no regard for their own life, just a dumb zombie,” says Wernick. Gardner took the Homer name literally by working yellow into their skin tone and adding a tiny bit of hair on top of their heads – facilitating the perfect comb over.
- The Hawkings – The thinking man’s zombie. Named after Steven Hawkings, these zombies have evolved into the cleverest and most resourceful. From using human eyeballs for retina scans to just blatantly outsmarting humans, the Hawkings will beat you in Scrabble, design an app that takes all your money, and then eat you for dinner.
- “The Ninja” – This stealth zombie appears out of nowhere. With superior reflexes, Ninjas are nimble and quick, the Olympic sprinters and gymnasts of the zombie kingdom.
In order to take the sequel to the new level, the filmmakers needed to think about not just the future of the characters, but of the zombies themselves: How have the living dead of this post-apocalyptic world changed? “Our characters have grown but unfortunately the zombies have also evolved,” says Eisenberg. This 4th zombie is next level.
4. The T-800 – This is the scariest, most evolved zombie of all. These guys are terrifying, destructively relentless, and Double-Tap resistant — they’ve hard to kill and keep getting up — which makes them not only harder to kill, but harder to anticipate as well. “Ruben wanted a more visual cue to the look so you could distinguish them from the regular zombies,” says Gardner. “We ratcheted up the blisters and chemical imbalances in the skin because most of the T-800 stuff happens at night. So, they have white veins and their eyes have gone solid black, with the idea being that they’re more feral and more animalistic. Basically, we kind of looked at them as sharks. They hone in on what they’re going to bite; They’re focused, deliberate, with black shark eyes. But they’re still just as drippy and gross though as the regular guys.”
The Creative Team
Ruben Fleischer directed breakout first film Zombieland, as well as the comic book adaptation, Venom (2018), the period gangster film Gangster Squad (2013) and the dark comedy 30 Minutes Or Less.
Fleischer founded the ABC Studios-based production company The District, alongside partner Dave Bernad. Prolific producers, their comedy series “Superstore,” starring America Ferrera, is currently in its fifth season on NBC. They also produce “The Bold Type” for Freeform, which is heading into its fourth season, and “Stumptown,” starring Cobie Smulders, which debuted this Fall. Notably, Ruben also directed the pilots of “Santa Clarita Diet” for Netflix and “American Housewife” for ABC. Previously in the TV space, Ruben co-created and executive produced the hit reality MTV shows, “Rob & Big” and “Rob Dyrdek’s Fantasy Factory.” Ruben got his start as an award-winning commercial and music video director. He is based in Los Angeles.
Writer-Producers Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick , who met in high school in Phoenix, Arizona, have been screenwriting partners since 2001. They wrote and executive-produced Deadpool, starring Ryan Reynolds. The 2016 superhero action-comedy is the highest grossing R-rated movie of all time ($783M). Deadpool was nominated for Best Picture (Comedy or Musical) at the Golden Globe Awards and won the Critics’ Choice award for Best Comedy. Reese and Wernick also earned a Writer’s Guild nomination for Best Adapted Screenplay. Reese and Wernick subsequently co-wrote and executive-produced Deadpool 2 and Once Upon a Deadpool, which together outperformed Deadpool at the box office ($785M).
Reese and Wernick’s first feature collaboration, Zombieland, which they wrote and executive-produced for Columbia Pictures in 2009, scored a 90 percent on Rotten Tomatoes and became one of Hollywood’s highest grossing zombie movies ($100M+).
Upcoming is 6 Underground, an original action-adventure Reese and Wernick wrote and executive-produced for Netflix. Michael Bay directs, and Ryan Reynolds stars. The film is Reese’s and Wernick’s fourth collaboration with Reynolds. 6 Underground is set for a December 13, 2019 release.
Also for Netflix, Spiderhead, based on George Saunder’s short story, Escape from Spiderhead, which Reese and Wernick wrote and will produce, with Joe Kosinksi directing.
In addition, Reese and Wernick are currently writing Clue, based on the Hasbro game of the same name, for Fox/Disney, with Ryan Reynolds starring and producing. Also for Fox/Disney, they are writing a screenplay based on the article/true story: ‘McScam: How an Ex-Cop Rigged McDonald’s Monopoly Game and Stole Millions.’ Ben Affleck is set to direct and Matt Damon to star.
Reese’s and Wernick’s past credits include G.I. Joe: Retaliation, starring Dwayne Johnson, Channing Tatum, and Bruce Willis, for Paramount Pictures ($375M worldwide), and Life, starring Ryan Reynolds and Jake Gyllenhaal, for Sony Pictures.
Reese’s and Wernick’s initial collaboration was in television, creating, writing, and executive-producing “The Joe Schmo Show” for Spike TV. The series drew Spike’s highest-ever ratings. “The Joe Schmo Show” was named to numerous Best Of lists, including TIME Magazine’s Top 10 TV Shows of the year and Entertainment Weekly’s 50 Best TV Shows Ever on DVD. Reese and Wernick followed up with Joe Schmo 2 and Invasion Iowa, a high-concept comedy hybrid starring William Shatner. They returned to TV in 2019 with “Wayne,” a streaming series for YouTube Premium. Reese and Wernick have several new TV projects in development.
Reese has written movies for Pixar Animation Studios (Monsters, Inc.), Walt Disney Feature Animation (Dinosaur), and Warner Brothers (Clifford’s Really Big Movie), among others. Wernick has produced several network reality shows. He won three Emmy awards for his work in news.
Screenwriter David Callaham most recently wrote Wonder Woman 1984 with Patty Jenkins and Geoff Johns for Warner Bros. In Television, Callaham created and executive produced the action-comedy series “Jean-Claude Van Johnson” for Amazon in 2017. He also penned the animated comedy America: The Motion Picture for Netflix, which he wrote and will produce with Lord Miller, Free Association, and Floyd country with Channing Tatum attached to voice George Washington.