Horror comedies are rarely pure; they inevitably tend to be more horrifying or more comedic, and the nearly-awesome Zombieland unquestionably belongs to the latter group. Which is a difficult place to be. Every zombie movie of the last 40 years already has an uphill battle, of course; each of them must be weighed against the genre-defining trilogy of films by George A. Romero begun with 1968's Night of the Living Dead, and zombie comedies in the last few years must not only contend with that insurmountable hurdle, but with another, nearly as damnable: the extraordinary Shaun of the Dead from 2004, arguably the funniest horror comedy ever made. Zombieland, it cannot be denied, makes a more than credible attempt to match both of these high water marks, and yet it must be said that Zombieland also does not quite succeed: it's naked desire to be taken in the company of such giants is visible at every point, and the movie ends up feeling just a wee bit like it's straining to be as funny as possible, rather than being funny as a natural extension of its being. The overall impression I had was of a filmmaker who watched Dawn of the Dead, and finding it confusing that, although a satire, it wasn't funny, set out to make to right that wrong and trying too hard.

Still, when the movie clicks, it clicks real good - and by all means, Zombieland spends most of its time clicking, if not necessarily because of the extremely functional direction by Ruben Fleischer, then certainly thanks to a particularly game cast that understands exactly what they're doing in a film like this, and make no effort to be classy or dignified. Chief among these is Jesse Eisenberg, the young hipster darling for whom I've never had very much use in the past, not in The Squid and the Whale (which I loved despite him), nor in Adventureland (which I'd have loved more if he weren't in it). His performance in Zombieland absolutely represents the peak of his abilities: taking his persona as the down-market Michael Cera and running it straight into the stressful life of a survivalist in a zombie-ridden wasteland, his tics and stiff delivery actually come across as natural and necessary extensions of his character, and not just the weaknesses of a halfway decent actor.

Eisenberg plays a young Austin college nerd with a vast and profoundly neurotic set of phobias and survival instincts that serve him well after the whole world is swiftly taken down by a hideous disease, communicated by saliva, that turns the victim into a raging cannibal (thus, like 28 Days Later, we might accurately say that Zombieland is not indeed a zombie movie at all; but who outside of Danny Boyle actually gets that upset over this distinction?). He is our tour guide to this bloody new version of America, explaining in voiceover with no small amount of pride how his list of 31 rules have helped him stay alive while everyone else has gotten themselves devoured. He meets his antithesis in the form of a gun-loving cowboy (Woody Harrelson) who much prefers to keep things as free-form and exciting as possible, and who treats zombie killing as an extreme sport. It's this much more adventurous wanderer who christens our pathetic young hero "Columbus", for the city that's his ultimate destination, preferring to keep proper names off the table; the cowboy himself goes thus by "Tallahassee". In due course, the two men - travelling together by a need for human contact that neither is willing to acknowledge - come across a pair of sisters, Wichita (Emma Stone) and Little Rock (Abigail Breslin), who are the sharpest pair of con artists left alive; not a big sample size, but they're smart enough to consistently outwit the boys. All four end up journeying together to California, where it is said that the Pacific Playland amusement park offers safe harbor for any human survivors, and Columbus finds that the end of the world is insufficient to quell his youthful hormones, leading him on a quest to seduce Wichita, who would be out of his league by light-years if he weren't possibly the only male of appropriate breeding age left alive on Earth.

The order of the day is not really zombie-survival, though that is a constant element; it is absolutely not a close analysis of how a post-zombie world might function, but that idea has already been done in plenty of other places. No, this is first, above all, and only, a raucous depiction of how four very diverse personalities cope with being the only people left alive in a world where they could die at any second. Meaning that it lives and dies on one judgment: is it funny? And that's something I cannot say for you, nor can anyone. To me, the answer is that it's funny most of the time, especially in a mid-film cameo that is paralysingly brilliant, and which I shall not even think of giving away, though it's sitting right goddamn there on the IMDb page for God and everyone to see. At times it is only modestly amusing, the kind of film that makes you smile or even grin without laughing out loud -lolling, the kids say - and in very rare instances, it's not even that, but just the sort of pleasant but aimless comedy that gets one a touch impatient (the film is brief, at 88 minutes; but it does not feel less than those 88 minutes).

Ruben Fleischer and the pair of screenwriters, Rhett Reese & Paul Wernick, do try to spice things up with some flashy structural tricks based around Columbus's narration (Fleischer also trots out imaginative, but to my mind unfortunate, visual representations of the boy's rules, using that "seemingly non-diegetic text that interacts with the mise en scène", a trend that I am long past waiting for it to fucking die already), but the film lives and breathes because of the actors, all of whom are damn fun to watch: Harrelson wins the prize for "most animated", but it's a close race, and even Emma Stone, who has never been given anything interesting to do in a movie before this, is clearly having a good time. As in any comedy, the film's virtues are ultimately in the eye of the beholder (though like I said, or at least implied, it is at best a mixed success as both zombie film and post-apocalyptic adventure), but to this pair of eyes, it is a worthwhile effort at a subgenre that most often produces dim stupidities without any trace of wit or joy. Wit and joy, thankfully, are both present in Zombieland, in no small quantities.