Zoey Deutch, Emma Stone, Jesse Eisenberg and Woody Harrelson in Zombieland: Double Tap (Sony)

ZOMBIELAND: DOUBLE TAP
*** (out of four)
DIRECTED BY Ruben Fleischer
STARS Woody Harrelson, Jesse Eisenberg

It took writer-director Richard Linklater nine years before he followed Before Sunrise with Before Sunset, and another nine years before he followed Before Sunset with Before Midnight. It’s now taken director Ruben Fleischer 10 years to follow Zombieland with Zombieland: Double Tap. Should we mark our 2029 calendars with the potential premiere of Zombieland: Triple Play?

There are far more gloomy prospects for our collective future than another Zombieland sequel, as Double Tap shows that there’s still life left in this undead franchise. And if the characters don’t grow as much as Jesse and Céline in Linklater’s Before trilogy — well, nonstop zombie slaying admittedly doesn’t allow much downtime for introspection or navel-gazing.

If anything, the returning characters are stuck in a rut. Now using the White House as their home, the makeshift family of Tallahassee (Woody Harrelson), Columbus (Jesse Eisenberg), Wichita (Emma Stone) and Little Rock (Abigail Breslin) find themselves occasionally getting on each other’s nerves. Most affected is Little Rock, who is not only love-starved but also resents how Tallahassee treats her like a kid. As for Columbus and Wichita, their relationship is experiencing severe turbulence, with Columbus wanting to get married and Wichita preferring to maintain some emotional distance.

With dysfunction rearing its ugly head, the two women elect to take off on their own. That leaves the men home alone — or at least until another human survivor enters the picture. That would be Madison (Zoey Deutch), who’s quickly revealed to possess the brainpower of a lizard that’s had too many rocks bonking it on the head. She hooks up with Columbus, which leads to tension once Wichita returns to inform the others that Little Rock is heading to a hippie commune alongside a guitar-strumming pacifist (Avan Jogia). Determining that Little Rock might be in trouble, the gang sets out after her, along the way meeting a few more humans and a lot more zombies.

Zombieland: Double Tap takes its time getting out of the gate, but it kicks into high gear with the introduction of Madison. The character of the bubbly ditz is old-hat, but Deutch delivers such an ingratiating and amusing performance that she easily steals the show. Also engaging are newcomers Albuquerque and Flagstaff, a couple of zombie slayers played by Luke Wilson and Thomas Middleditch. Without revealing too much, let’s just say that their characters find the movie at its most meta. While such an approach usually reeks of pretension, here it allows for some worthwhile mirth.

If anything, the movie is even gorier than its predecessor, but its cynicism is never tainted by mean-spiritedness (thankfully, a massacre that seems all but inevitable never arrives). The film instead laughs at itself and its leading players with unforced levity, particularly in a running gag involving Tallahassee’s disgust at having to drive a minivan.

Stick around for a guest appearance by a big star midway through the end credits. Or don’t, since this overlong sequence is DOA and falls with all the grace of a zombie tripping over its own shuffling feet.

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