‘Cooties’ is a horror comedy with a lot going for it – an interesting concept, a solid cast, generally good production values and flashes of craftsmanship behind the camera. But somehow this zombie epic never fully clicks.
The film’s central concept has great potential for gallows humor. A harried group of quirky staff members at an elementary school must fight for their lives against children that have been turned into flesh eating zombies by contaminated chicken nuggets (the opening credits, which show how the nuggets are made, will turn weaker stomachs). But the film seems too slick to be as subversive as the idea demands.
The film’s hero, played by Elijah Wood, is an aspiring writer that lives with his mother in the unappetizingly named Fort Chicken. He gets a job as a substitute teacher and from there circumstances conspire to run his day (the annoying pseudo-hippie vice-principal played by Ian Brennan confiscates his cell phone to set a good example that the disrespectful students ignore).
All the usual tropes are brought to bear – a love interest (Alison Pill) and her jerk boyfriend (Rainn Wilson); a group of bickering allies thrown together; plot contrivances that ensure isolation; a claustrophobic setting; insanely bad decisions. Leigh Whannell and Josh C. Waller, who wrote the script with Brennan, manage to elicit absurd humor from subverting many of these elements in the expected manner. But the climactic battle between the good guys and the zombie students seems to comfortably skirt the taboos that it should be shattering – it could have (and should have) been far more offensive.
Directors Jonathan Milott and Cary Murnion demonstrate some flair for balancing extreme gore with genuine suspense. Scenes involving a zombie on a tricycle demonstrate a feel for the cinematic language of horror (fear of confinement, exposure, etc.)
The performances from the excellent cast are uniformly good, and the writing does allow for some engaging, eccentric characterizations (Jorge Garcia is kind of funny as a drug-using crossing guard but ultimately the weakest link here). The zombie kids are funny and genuinely menacing (Cooper Roth is particularly good as a little bugger named Patriot, who is begging for comeuppance even before becoming a zombie).
‘Cooties’ is a watchable parody of zombie films and viewers won’t feel cheated. But the end result seems too timid considering its subject matter.