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'Zombieland' not your standard brain-eating fare

  • Story Highlights
  • In new movie "Zombieland," focus is on the stars and the comedy
  • Movie's performers include Woody Harrelson, Abigail Breslin
  • One of film's writers had seen just one zombie film in his life
  • Among movie's surprises: a cameo from an Oscar-nominated actor
By Alan Duke
CNN
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LOS ANGELES, California (CNN) -- Like all zombie movies, "Zombieland" has hundreds of zombies doing awful things, such as attacking and eating humans, but you could argue it's not a zombie movie.

Writer Paul Wernick, right, had seen one zombie film in his life, but co-writer Rhett Reese is a zombie expert.

Jesse Eisenberg and Woody Harrelson find themselves battling the undead in "Zombieland."

Zombie hordes do chase the main characters in a post-apocalyptic world, but the focus is on the comedy's stars, including two Oscar nominees -- Woody Harrelson and Abigail Breslin -- along with Jesse Eisenberg and Emma Stone.

(Spoiler alert: A third Oscar nominee makes a remarkable cameo appearance, but this story will avoid spoiling the surprise by naming him.)

"We wanted to make a cool, kick-ass road movie about a dysfunctional family traveling across the country and zombies provide us the antagonists, the threat that our characters need to come together," said Paul Wernick, who wrote the screenplay with partner Rhett Reese.

In fact, Wernick had only seen one zombie film before writing this script. Reese, who is a fan of the genre, kept the story on a track that would feed zombie fans' hunger for blood-and-guts action.

"[The] zombie genre is so well traveled, there is really no reason to get into it unless we could do it in a fresh, different way," Reese said. "We were almost forced to think outside the box to make it an entertaining zombie movie."

"Zombieland" is set in the United States months after a fast-moving virus begins turning most people into flesh-eating zombies. A handful of survivors come together to fight back.

Wernick and Reese literally rewrote the rules for zombie films in this movie. Eisenberg's character is an obsessive-compulsive man who developed 47 rules -- such as "fasten your seat belt" -- designed to help him survive in Zombieland.

While Eisenberg journeys to find his parents, he joins Harrelson, a zombie killer who is searching for the last Hostess Twinkie before its expiration date.

Stone and Breslin play sisters who survive on their con artist skills. Their goal is to reach a California amusement park, which they think could be free of zombies.

The cross-country trip these four characters share resembles "National Lampoon's Vacation" -- if written and directed by Quentin Tarantino. Video Watch the stars of the film talk about zombie fans »

Wernick said they wanted to be "very freewheeling."

The movie "gives the audience the thrill of the journey," he said. "We wanted to take some wild turns."

"The rules that we lived by when writing this is in fact that there are no rules," he said.

"Zombieland" may be to zombies what Tarantino's "Inglourious Basterds" is to Nazis.

Wernick and Reese, who have been close friends since high school, often finish each other's sentences as if they were an old married couple.

"When we were trying to get 'Zombieland' off the ground back in the early days, we ..." Wernick said.

"... assaulted Tarantino at an awards show, to try to get him to read the script," Reese said.

"That didn't work out," Wernick said in conclusion to their joint thought. "He thought we were zombies coming after him."

"Zombieland," directed by Rubin Fleischer, offers many of the same elements as a Tarantino film.

"[Tarantino] is all about dialogue, character, irreverence, pop culture and we love all those things over the years," Reese said. "We have always been inspired by him."

The writers had to run through a number of actors before finding the person for the 10-minute cameo. Among them was Patrick Swayze, the writers' first choice. Swayze, who died just two weeks before the movie's release, turned down the role because of ill health earlier this year.

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Also asked: Joe Pesci, Steven Seagal, Jean-Claude Van Damme, Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson, Matthew McConaughey, Mark Hamill, Kevin Bacon and Sylvester Stallone. They were asked, but either didn't want the role or were not available, according to Wernick and Reese.

With just a few days before filming the scenes, they asked Harrelson to look in his cell phone for names and numbers. He came up with a man who's been an Oscar nominee and Emmy winner. And now, he's got a key role in a zombie film.

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