On a quiet night at home with my parents, flicking through the channels, I landed on the 2009 film gem: Zombieland. Putting aside my weird obsession with Woody Harrelson, as I watched the film for the sixth or seventh time, I was struck by the picture it painted of our nation’s post-zombie apocalypse identity: a landscape bereft of life, ravaged by the undead, survived only by four lucky humans.
Oh, and the legacy of Hannah Montana.
That’s right, this fantastic, though mostly ignored horror-comedy piles on a heavy load of pop culture references, strangely situated in a world where culture has descended into blood-splattered, flesh-eating chaos, as it piles up the undead body count. Watching the flick as a member of pre-apocalyptic America, I was left wondering: Can something as simple as a package of delicious, fluffy Twinkies define us all?
Oddly enough, I think the answer is yes. Give me Twinkies or give me death, the epitaph of my hero Mr. Harrelson’s character, might seem a tad irrational, but these preservative-ridden pastries represent far more than heart attack shaped like a stick, in Zombieland and in life outside the Starz channel.
In the movie, Columbus (Jesse Eisenberg) understands Harrelson’s love of Twinkies as a symbol for something beyond sugar. Twinkies, he says in one of his narrations, are a link to the past. To the survivors of the apocalypse, Twinkies are the inexplicable, squishy building blocks of society. A product that makes no sense in nature, Twinkies are more cultural construction than sustenance. To Tallahassee (Harrelson), they’re stuffed with marshmallow memories of nonsensical civilization.
Despite the fact that the world has crumbled around them, the characters in Zombieland still relate to each other, to themselves, and to us through the iconography of our culture: Twinkies, Hannah Montana, Facebook statuses, Willie Nelson, and even Bill Murray.
In fact, the most surreal moment of the movie occurs completely sans cannibalistic half-deads, and instead in the Bill Murray mansion, where Tallahassee meets his idol for the first (and last) time. For two full minutes, we awkwardly watch a character played by the iconic Woody Harrelson admire the similarly iconic Bill Murray, playing himself.
We even watch a few minutes of Ghostbusters with Eisenberg as he educates the youngest survivor, Little Rock (Abigail Breslin), about Murray’s acting career. Of course, the scene of Ghostbusters we watch is the scene that references Twinkies, adding to the convoluted layers of imagery we are now experiencing. It doesn’t help that Eisenberg is now the face of Facebook, thanks to The Social Network, making his shared distaste for Facebook statuses feel a little weird.
What’s really going on in all this mess?
Well, during all this mess, we’re laughing. Because, like the zombies respond (usually by salivating blood) to bells, lights, and a few infamous chords from “Dueling Banjos,” we respond to these pop culture references. They are the glue that holds us to the movie. And although they seem unimportant, trivial even, they truly are the glue that holds our culture together – the touchstones that everyone can reach. If all else were to fail, perhaps they alone would survive amongst us.
And so, when Tallahassee bids farewell to Columbus with a line from Babe, we know he stole it from a movie, and yeah, it’s a pretty lame good-bye. But we laugh, we smirk knowingly at the fellow popcorn-munchers on our couches, and we notice they’re doing the same.
We can barely ask more from a pre- or post-apocalyptic Saturday night than a little human togetherness, even if Twinkies are the common denominator.
That’ll do, Zombieland. That’ll do.