Once upon a time, being undead meant something. Horror pioneer George Romero used zombies as metaphors for brainless consumers or oppressed minorities, depending on his mood. In the long-running TV show "The Walking Dead," the shambling menaces are a pretext for exploring man's inhumanity to man. Two recent literary novels, Colson Whitehead's Zone One and Ling Ma's Severance, use variations on the zombie-plague motif to make pointed statements about postmodern humanity.
Then there's Zombieland (2009), in which zombies don't mean anything; they exist solely to facilitate a combination of bloody action and postapocalyptic snark. Ruben Fleischer's film wasn't the first zombie comedy, or the best one (I'd nominate Edgar Wright's Shaun of the Dead), but it was good fun and did decent box office. And two of its young stars, Emma Stone and Jesse Eisenberg, turned out to be rising.
So it's not a huge surprise that Fleischer has made a belated sequel, Zombieland: Double Tap. What's more of a surprise is that this time the comedy is mostly DOA.
As before, Eisenberg narrates the movie in nervous, breathy Woody Allen-ish fashion, playing the unlikely survivor Columbus. In Zombieland, he formed a makeshift family with the gonzo redneck Tallahassee (Woody Harrelson) and the resourceful sisters Wichita (Stone) and Little Rock (Abigail Breslin).
In Double Tap, the four have found a luxurious home in the abandoned White House, where the electricity never runs out. (The blatant disregard of realism is acknowledged in a wink-wink line to the audience.) But all isn't well in paradise: Wichita isn't ready for Columbus to put a ring (the Hope diamond!) on her finger. The sisters light out in search of independence.
Columbus consoles himself with Madison (Zoey Deutch), a ditzy blonde who's been living in a mall freezer. But he regrets his indiscretion when Wichita returns lamenting that Little Rock has absconded with a pacifist hippie (Avan Jogia). The search for her takes everyone on a road trip that feels more like a series of disconnected episodes than a plot.
There's some fun along the way — for instance, when Columbus and Tallahassee encounter their doppelgängers (Luke Evans and Thomas Middleditch) and engage the other odd couple in fast and furious one-upmanship. For the most part, though, the three screenwriters lean on tired and obvious sources of humor. Deutch does her damnedest to make her role funny, but only rarely does this airhead get to transcend a stereotype. In her best scene, Madison concocts the idea of Uber on a free-associational ramble; her smarter companions shoot it down as absurd.
Double Tap could have used more moments of satire like that one. Its frequent fourth-wall breaking — Columbus reminds the audience that we have no shortage of "zombie entertainment" — feels less like a bold gesture than a nervous tic.
It's as if the filmmakers are so embarrassed by their own derivative material that they're trying to hide it with a veneer of hipness, rather than finding ways to revitalize it. The 10-year-old concept has tantalizingly relevant aspects: Columbus and Tallahassee are blue-state and red-state caricatures who've managed to become best buds by splattering zombie brains together. But Double Tap rarely taps into its own potential.
If carnage alternating with camaraderie and wisecracks is your thing, the movie has some of each. But when a mid-credits scene gets bigger laughs than the actual film, that's a problem. Double Tap feels about as fresh as an animated corpse rotting in the sun.