Sundance Film Review: ‘Cooties’

Variety

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Circle, circle, dot, dot … A schoolyard full of anklebiters develops a genuine taste for flesh in “Cooties,” an irreverent, off-color zom-com that seizes on the scourge of playgrounds everywhere when a spontaneous outbreak of brain-rotting, cannibalism-inducing germs erupts within a small-town elementary school. Told from the teachers’ p.o.v., this tongue-in-cheek midnight movie feels wrong in so many ways, asking a handful of irresponsible adults to bash and bludgeon their way through foaming packs of infected kids in order to save themselves. Acquired by Lionsgate at Sundance, the franchise-ready offering should benefit enormously from one of the distrib’s clever marketing campaigns.

When “The Walking Dead” pilot shot a little zombie girl through the forehead, critics were understandably outraged. But when a tongue-in-cheek satire comes along and treats the entire student body of a semi-privileged public school as target practice, one should either embrace the bad-taste premise or switch off immediately. (Surely the creative team could have had even more fun with a “Faculty”-style kidpic in which the students had to outwit a bunch of braindead teachers.)

Sad-sack substitute Clint Hadson (Elijah Wood) arrives for his first day back at Ft. Chicken Elementary unprepared for the unruly bunch of prepubescent monsters that await him in class — and this is before an infected chicken nugget transforms them all into zombies. Clint is determined to be the cool guy to these ungrateful kids, but there’s only so much you can do for hell-raisers like Patriot (Cooper Roth), born on 9/11 and counting down to his 18th birthday, when he can finally go kick some terrorist butt.

Clint would much rather be working on what sounds like the worst horror novel ever, or flirting with his old flame Lucy McCormick (Alison Pill, all smiles). In that respect, he’s no different from the other teachers, none of whom seems to care about inspiring young minds — which probably explains why they aren’t all that bothered when the kids start to eat one another’s brains.

Such a twisted genre hybrid could only hail from two writers as weirdly paired as Ian Brennan (“Glee”) and Leigh Whannell (“Saw”), whose disparate sensibilities actually prove remarkably compatible when it comes to cross-breeding teeny-bopper comedy with hard-R horror. The result is a not-very-scary chiller laced with profanity, pot jokes and other wildly inappropriate gags, only a few of which seem to have anything to do with the elementary school setting (like the throwaway shot of kids playing tetherball with a dead teacher’s head).

Both Brennan and Whannell also appear in the film, turning in memorable performances as the school vice principal and the world’s creepiest sex-ed teacher, respectively, though it’s hard for anyone to compete with attention hog Rainn Wilson’s overzealous P.E. coach when it comes to landing the laughs.

Amusing as the “Cooties” script manages to be, one gets the distinct impression that its authors didn’t bother to visit a school at any point in the research or writing process, missing out on any number of jokes they could have made at public education’s expense. Nor did they worry much about traditional zombie lore, bending the rules to suit the comedy (anyone past puberty can’t catch “cooties”).

One need only pass by a playground to observe how the cacophony of screams makes it impossible to tell whether the kids are having a good time or crying out in extreme pain. Maybe that’s the effect “Cooties” is going for when it takes the teachers such an incredibly long time to recognize the bloody game of tag going on behind their backs, though it feels like the faculty simply don’t care about the students — except for one tacky gay stereotype (Jack McBrayer) who takes perhaps too much interest in the lone uninfected student, a choirboy played by Armani Jackson.

Helming duo Jonathan Milott and Cary Murnion — the twisted minds behind the three-minute “Boob,” about a breast implant with a mind of its own — arrive at their first feature with a fully developed visual style. That much is clear from the stomach-churning opening sequence, which tracks an oozing black substance from chicken farm to cafeteria tray, though the amusement dips considerably once the teachers start crawling through air vents to escape. Still, for the most part, the inspired cutting, blocking and framing continue to the end-credits epilogue, with its promise of more mayhem to come.

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