Directed by: Jonathan Milott and Cary Murnion
Premise: A virus turns the children of an elementary school into zombies. The teachers must fight their way to safety.
What Works: The horror-comedy tends to lend itself to cult audiences and Cooties is poised to become a cult title. Like a lot of movies that have cult appeal, Cooties has an askew tone and its events are colored by a controlled sense of absurdity. There are a lot of elements in this movie that are simultaneously awful and brilliant such as the conceit in which contaminated chicken fingers served in the school cafeteria cause a zombie outbreak. The movie is able to find humor not only amid the zombie attack but well before that in sequences that lampoon the American educational system, especially politically correct administrators and the coddling of children at the cost of emasculating teaching professionals. Like a lot of zombie movies, Cooties has its share of gore and the viscera is well handled. The violence and the gore are extreme, as they usually are in zombie pictures, but the violence of Cooties is also wickedly funny and a lot of that is due to the performances by the actors. The players in this film are given goofy and very funny lines of dialogue but they play it straight and that makes the humor work. The actors of Cooties are mostly cast to their strengths. The film is led by Elijah Wood as a substitute teacher who is also an aspiring novelist. With his small stature and mousy disposition, Wood has the underdog qualities that make him the audience’s point of entry into the story. While substituting he meets a long estranged acquaintance and fellow teacher played by Alison Pill. Pill is very good as the wide eyed and enthusiastic type, as seen in her role as a school teacher in Snowpierecer, and she brings a lot of those same qualities to her part in Cooties. Rainn Wilson plays the physical education teacher and he is the same kind of macho idiot he played in The Office. These characters are goofy but in a way that is consistent with the tone of the movie and they earn our empathy as they attempt to save not only themselves but also a pair of uninfected students. Cooties has some striking images and co-directors Jonathan Milott and Cary Murnion demonstrate a unique visual style that is comically absurd while also credibly threatening.
What Doesn’t: Cooties is more of a comedy than it is a horror film. That’s fine but the movie does not quite manage the balance between laughs and frights as in Evil Dead II or Return of the Living Dead. As a subgenre, the horror comedy has the potential to make the audience laugh in an uncomfortable way. Cooties never quite does that. The film has its share of gross out moments but the film doesn’t capitalize on the conceit of the story. In this film many of the kids are monstrous even before they turn into the undead and so the filmmakers miss the horror of innocence turned malevolent. Cooties is also nowhere near as unsettling as other killer kid movies like Who Can Kill a Child? or Children of the Corn. As a zombie movie, Cooties sticks to the standard formula originated in Night of the Living Dead and does not deviate from it. Zombies are outside, the survivors are inside, and the zombies try to get in while the survivors try to get out. Aside from setting the action in a school and casting children as the ghouls there is nothing really new in Cooties and so it’s coasting on the novelty of its junior undead. The humor and action are enough to carry it but the filmmakers lose their way in the finale. The picture is in search of an ending and what the filmmakers settle on isn’t satisfying because it does not resolve anything or bring the characters to a relevant conclusion.
Bottom Line: Cooties is no match for Shaun of the Dead but it is a lot of goofy fun that mixes absurd comedy with zombie violence. This movie is probably going to appeal to a niche audience but that audience is bound to love it.
Episode: #562 (October 4, 2015)