When Woody Harrelson received a copy of the screenplay for “Zombieland,” he stuffed it into his duffel bag of unread scripts and promptly forgot about it.
Even after his agent started pestering him, Harrelson couldn’t be bothered to dig it out and have a look.
“I just thought, ‘It’s a zombie movie; it’s gotta be stupid,’ “ he says.
But Harrelson changed his mind when he finally read “Zombieland,” in which he plays one of four survivors of a plague that turns the United States into a country overrun by the flesh-eating undead.
Still, he says, “When I went to see the movie at a screening in Orange County, I was really worried it was going to be terrible, because you never know.
“But I was delighted. It turned out great. I’m really jazzed about it.”
Harrelson’s concerns are understandable. For every halfway-decent zombie flick, there are two dozen others so wretched and lame you probably have never heard of them.
But “Zombieland,” opening in theaters today, shares the crucial element that elevates many of the best zombie movies: First and foremost, it’s a comedy.
Although there would seem to be scant possibility for amusement in rotting bodies that rise from the grave to eat the living – there was certainly nothing funny about director George A. Romero’s exploration of the concept in his 1968 black-and-white drive-in cheapie “Night of the Living Dead” – filmmakers have discovered that zombies are also natural-born comedians.
Humor crept into the zombie genre gradually, beginning with Romero’s 1978 sequel, “Dawn of the Dead,” in which the unthinkably graphic violence and gore gradually segued into a satire of consumerist culture (the zombies gravitated toward a gigantic mall, because even the dead want to window shop).
When members of a biker gang invaded the mall, they chopped off the zombies’ heads with machetes – but also smacked them in the face with cream pies.
Later zombie films, such as 1985’s “The Return of the Living Dead” or Peter Jackson’s 1992 gore epic “Dead Alive,” pushed the humor further, delivering the horror goods but always with an eye toward making the audience laugh.
By the time the British import “Shaun of the Dead” shambled across movie screens in 2004, the zombie comedy – or “zombedy” – had become a veritable sub-genre.
Even straightforward zombie pictures that merely aimed to frighten, such as Zack Snyder’s 2004 remake of “Dawn of the Dead,” made room for bits of funny business, such as a sequence in which the heroes start picking out celebrity lookalikes among the undead hordes to shoot in the head. (“Look, Jay Leno!”)
Writing partners Paul Wernick and Rhett Reese first conceived of “Zombieland” in 1995 as a pilot for a TV series that would detail the weekly adventures of a group of survivors in a zombie world.
But after CBS passed, the writers got a rare opportunity to rethink the project as a theatrical film, centering on four still-human survivors (played by Harrelson, Jesse Eisenberg, Emma Stone and Abigail Breslin).
From the outset, the “Zombieland” writers say they were interested in stressing the lighter aspect of the gloomy prospect of the end of the world.
“We wanted to look on the bright side of the apocalypse and treat the world as a playground – as a place that might actually be fun to spend time in,” Wernick says.
“The apocalypse implies there are not going to be a lot of people left standing, which is obviously a tragedy,” he says. “But it also gives you an opportunity to do a lot of crazy things, like hang out (at a dead celebrity’s Beverly Hills mansion) or kill zombies without consequence.”
“Zombieland” also introduces a fresh element into the familiar zombie scenario: A list of rules, illustrated on the screen by clever graphics, that instruct viewers on how to survive in case the dead really do return.
Rule No. 1: Cardio, because when zombies start sprinting after you, the fatties will be the first to go. Rule No. 3: Beware of bathrooms, where you’re at your most vulnerable.
In one shot, the marquee at Mann’s Chinese Theater in Los Angeles is showing “2012,” Roland Emmerich’s upcoming special-effects extravaganza about the planet’s destruction by natural disasters.
“Everybody has a lot of anxiety about the future, especially in these pretty uncertain times,” says “Zombieland” director Ruben Fleischer. “These movies allow a safe and fun exploration of the ‘What if?’
“Certainly ‘2012’ is the most devastating way to do that. Ours is a more lighthearted approach,” he says. “It’s fun to think about what you would do, other than running from zombies to save yourself, if there was no one left in America. You have to fill the hours somehow, and these characters come up with some pretty fun things.
“It’s something we’ll hopefully never have to experience in real life, but it’s fun to watch on screen.”