An endearing and entertaining love letter to horror fans young and old, “Zombie Town” makes great work of an R.L. Stine classic.
Like most adult horror fans I know, I cut my genre-loving teeth on the books of R.L. Stine, a man responsible for introducing so many of us to the wonderful world of the creepy, the weird, and the slightly twisted. He’s beloved by the horror community for allowing us, as young children, access to a socially acceptable, parent-approved peek into the dark abyss that would soon become our obsession.
For many of us, our affection for gateway horrors — such as Goosebumps and films like Monster Squad, Hocus Pocus, and Halloweentown — never waned, even as we became accustomed to far more frightening fare.
We delight at revisiting these classics, watching younger generations discover the films that made us, and seeing them embrace the new class of family-friendly horror films like The Haunted Mansion and newer Goosebumps adaptations.
It’s into this pantheon of tween-targeted genre films that the newest R.L. Stine big-screen interpretation, Zombie Town, arrives.
Boasting a game cast of hot newcomers and film and television legends, Zombie Town knows and respects its young target audience but offers plenty of fan service for older viewers who will be tickled to see names like Chevy Chase and Dan Aykroyd listed among the credits.
The first thing you’re probably wondering is how much screen time these screen legends actually see in the film. As for Chase, he is certainly a minor role used primarily for a moment of gravitas in the film’s climactic scene.
However, Aykroyd, who also starred in one of the greatest gateway horror films of all time, Ghostbusters, plays a pivotal and meaty role.
And as you might expect, he’s marvelous. The scenes featuring him were by far my favorite. He’s absolutely still got it, and you won’t find him phoning it in here.
Though their roles are certainly secondary, it was a joy to see not one but two alumni from the brilliant sketch comedy show The Kids in the Hall, the hilarious Scott Thompson and Bruce McCulloch, whom you’ve seen in a hundred different things, even if you weren’t a fan of the show that made them famous.
The rest of the adults are perfectly cast and seem to have a blast with the campy material, including the scenery-chewing Brenna Coates as uptight teacher Ms. Bonnard and sidesplittingly funny Henry Czerny (You’re Next) as theater-owner-turned-zombie Richard Landro.
Of course, the young actors are the stars of the show and command the most screentime. Though the film’s premise revolves around a “sort of” zombie apocalypse (more on that in a minute), it’s really about the bonds of friendship, young love, and coming-of-age.
Social media star-turned-actor Madi Monroe as Amy Maxwell and rising talent Marlon Kazadi (Ghostbusters: Afterlife, Child’s Play 2019) as Mike Broadstreet are more than competent, especially Kazadi, who serves as the film’s nucleus.
Kazadi’s Mike is a shy, somewhat socially outcast teen with a secret crush on his best friend, Amy, who can’t wait to move out of his sleepy little horror-obsessed town. His mom (an excellent Chattrisse Dolabaille in a small but meaningful role) urges him to focus on what he loves about the town instead of everything he doesn’t.
Mike works at the local movie theater, run by the eccentric Mr. Landro (Czerny). Landro is giddy with enthusiasm over the upcoming showing of the latest zombie film, the titular Zombie Town, from legendary and long-retired horror filmmaker Len Carver (Aykroyd).
Like everyone in the town, Landro is a die-hard horror fan and a devotee of the reclusive Carver.
Carver was once a very big deal and by far the biggest thing to come out of town, which was renamed in his honor by the mayor.
He even has his own superfan group that goes by the name of The Carved, and they are a riot.
Landro has the only copy of Zombie Town, and he’s getting ready for a showing that promises to bring the entire town out. Mike — one of only two people in the town who hates horror — could not be less enthusiastic. But the girl of his dreams, Amy, is beside herself with excitement.
In an effort to impress her, Mike invites her to the theater the night before the screening for a sneak preview of the film. However, when they start to watch it, they discover the film is cursed.
A magical force is released into the streets, turning every single person into a living zombie, except for Mike, Amy, and Carver, who were protected by an ancient symbol. Don’t worry about any of that making sense; it doesn’t really need to.
All you need to know is that hijinks ensue, and the teens must team up with Carver to save the day.
One of the things Zombie Town absolutely nails is the aesthetic; the set design is exceptional.
I especially loved the scenes taking place in the old Hollywood-style theater amid the showcase of Landro’s awesome horror memorabilia. Carver’s home, full of artifacts and antiquities, is exquisite. And the sleepy town of Carver, with its nostalgic vibe, is quite charming.
The zombies are quite unintimidating.
They aren’t played for scares even remotely and, as such, are never much of a threat. They have no interest in eating flesh or brains. Their only goal is to convert more zombies; even that danger is almost entirely downplayed.
These zombies retain much of their former personality and are used primarily for zany antics and comic relief rather than adding real stakes or horror to the proceedings.
But that’s OK. You aren’t watching Zombie Town for jump scares and nightmare fuel.
The reveal of why the zombies are the way they are and what’s behind the mayhem is quite clever and fun, and the final act is a blast.
It’s a cliché summation, but this is truly a love letter to horror fans.
There are so many nods and winks to the grownup Goosebumps fans who always felt a little odd and misunderstood as horror junkies. I love the idea of turning the tables and creating an entire horror-obsessed town where the oddballs are the ones who don’t love and appreciate these kinds of films.
There’s a laugh-out-loud scene in the beginning when a reporter is interviewing a couple of teen Carver fans, and they are espousing their love of the director, calling him the best filmmaker ever. The reporter tries to clarify, “You mean the best HORROR filmmaker ever?” And the teens fiercely snap back, “No! The best filmmaker… period.”
This is a cinematic universe where horror is art — and that art really and truly matters.
And it’s a universe most of us would love to live in.
In another hilarious moment played for dramatic irony, Mike has to defend why he doesn’t love horror movies, confessing that he was traumatized by an intense horror film at a young age and never recovered. Because, in this world, you can’t just dislike horror films for no reason. Something terrible must have happened. You must be broken in some way.
I was smiling from ear to ear.
Directed by Peter Lepeniotis (Gnome Alone) and written by Lepeniotis, Michael Samonek, and Michael Schwartz (story by R.L. Stine), Zombie Town is a silly, sweet, delightfully good time.
Go see it with your kids, or treat yourself and your inner child to an endearing reminder of what we love about the genre.