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‘Zombieland’ brings the laughs but often lags

Despite strong performances and a terrific visual style, the film suffers from real pacing problems that make it ultimately a hit-and-miss proposition.

Mad cow virus has made its way to human beings, the United States is a wasteland, and four human survivors do whatever it takes to stay alive, which most often means shooting blood-covered zombies in the face.

Sounds hilarious, right?

There are lots of laughs, and well-deserved ones, in “Zombieland,” a horror-comedy that takes a page from “Shaun of the Dead” and reboots the zombie apocalypse as a staging ground for hilarity. Despite strong performances and a terrific visual style, however, the film suffers from real pacing problems that make it ultimately a hit-and-miss proposition.

The engaging Jesse Eisenberg stars as a college student whose general neuroses — he’s both anal retentive and suffering from irritable-bowel syndrome — and fear of the world have made him an ideal survivor, closely following a list of rules that include the “Double Tap” (shoot a zombie a second time to make sure it’s dead) and “Never Trust Bathrooms.”

He meets up with a fellow survivor played by Woody Harrelson, who eschews names since he doesn’t want to grow too attached to anyone in this violent wasteland; Harrelson’s character goes by “Tallahassee” and Eisenberg’s by “Columbus,” since those are their eventual destinations. Tallahassee favors big SUVs and cowboy boots, and he enjoys dispatching zombies with everything from heavy artillery to that lawn device known as the Garden Weasel.

At a grocery store — Tallahassee spends the film searching desperately for a Twinkie — they meet, and are hoodwinked by, con-artist sisters Wichita (Emma Stone) and Little Rock (Abigail Breslin). Even though the two ladies make off with their weapons and their ride, the guys meet up with them again later, with the four of them forming a family unit of sorts.

Little Rock wants to go to L.A. because she’s heard that the Pacific Playland amusement park is zombie-free; no one else is as optimistic about that notion, but lacking any other destinations, the quartet heads west. (Once in L.A., they have a memorable encounter about which I will say nothing — it’s one of the movie’s best jokes, though, so don’t let anyone spoil it for you before you see it.)

Eisenberg is fast becoming a young actor to watch, having already turned in impressive performances this year in “Adventureland” and “The Education of Charlie Banks.” He and Harrelson play off each other memorably, and Eisenberg’s nerdy neuroses are wonderfully at odds in the horrifying world he’s inhabiting here; it’s as if young Woody Allen wandered out of “Love and Death” and into “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre.”

For all the many good ideas and visual brio that first-time director Ruben Fleischer and screenwriters Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick bring to “Zombieland,” they never hit a consistent groove. The many heights they hit over the course of the movie just make the dead spots — and there’s way too many of them — all the more apparent. There’s a lot to bite into here, but it’s a film that doesn’t always live up to its own dizzying potential.

Follow Movie Critic Alonso Duralde at .