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by Jay Seaver

"Some real discipline problems here."
4 stars

SCREENED AT THE 2015 FANTASIA INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL: Allison Pill is carving out a weird niche in terms of sweet elementary school teachers who turn oddly violent between this and "Snowpiercer", isn't she? Granted, she's entirely justified here, as anybody in this movie describing kids as "little monsters" would be entirely on point. It's a demented, violent, fiercely funny horror-comedy, and probably more fun than many in that genre because just letting loose on kids actually feels a bit transgressive.

Before getting to that, it's a different sort of horror, with stalled-out writer Clint (Elijah Wood) starting his first day as a substitute teacher in his old elementary school after not making it big in New York and moving back in with his parents. On the one hand, his high-school crush Lucy (Pill) is also a teacher there; on the other, she's dating fellow faculty member Wade (Rainn Wilson), the sort of redneck bully that used to make Clint's life hell. It's not a great day, and that's before some tainted chicken nuggets from a local supplier are served during school lunch, and after the kids eat them... Well, aim for the head.

Tone is everything in a thing like this; as much as I've grown tired of how The Walking Dead often seems to rely on murdering children when it needs to cynically pack an extra punch in a finale episode, this film's makers approach the idea with glee after acknowledging that, yes, this is horrible. It's fun because, in many ways, these fast-zombie kids are the distillation of all the worst things about the worst children - they don't listen, they launch at each other over nothing, they bite, they run and run and run when you're trying to keep track of them, and they get into everything. Cooper Roth plays patient zero - an especially obnoxious brat by the name of "Patriot" (his parents clearly deserve some blame), and between how he establishes himself in the earlier stretches and the willingness of directors Jonathan Milott & Cary Murnion to let their zombies have a little personality, he almost feels like he's talking back even when growling while covered in fake blood.

A movie could skate by on that, but what really makes Cooties sing is that the faculty cast is awfully close to the exact one you might put together for a non-bloody comedy about elementary school teachers. Elijah Wood, for instance, looks more compact here than he did in the Lord of the Rings movies, like someone who could easily get overwhelmed by kids while mixing a kind of sweet and disappointed vibe with one of Clint kind of thinking he's above it. Pill's Lucy seems a perfect, cheerful and peacemaking fit for the environment, which, of course, makes the violence funnier, while Rainn Wilson dives into Wade as a lunkheaded, defensive gym teacher with aggressively simple tastes, funny because that may be just what they need. Character actors like Jack McBrayer and Jorge Garcia fill out the cast in exactly the roles you'd expect, and co-writers Ian Brennan and Leigh Whannell save some of the odder, more memorable roles for themselves. Whannell, in particular, is becoming best known for what he does behind the camera in straight horror fare, but he's a genuinely hilarious oddball here.

Scale-wise, it's definitely a B movie, probably more naturally at home on the small screen and VOD than theaters, but Milott & Murnion play within those bounds well, keeping the screen relatively uncluttered and not going for scenes that might exceed their capabilities; the script's scope is naturally limited and if the answers to questions like "what to do about cell phones" are dumb, they are believably dumb. The gross-out stuff is decent, but obviously not the entire point of the movie, more an exclamation point after a gag than the joke itself.

And while comedy comes first, Milott & Murnion do know their stuff where the mechanics of the genre are concerned - they audience may not have a map of the school in its collective head midway through the movie, but they lay out what's going on and keep track of everybody fairly well when they break up into smaller groups. Everybody involved can sell a joke without making it look like self-parody, despite the fact that audiences will often let filmmakers get away with it as the film goes on. Just because the film is silly doesn't mean it has to be dumb.

I've got family members and friends who are teachers, and I wonder how many of them would admit to this movie speaking to them. At least half, I figure, and the others just may not like zombies. I certainly wouldn't like to see kid-killing horror-comedies become a thing, but there is easily room for one good one like this.

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originally posted: 08/15/15 12:39:19
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2014 Sundance Film Festival For more in the 2014 Sundance Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2015 Stanley Film Festival For more in the 2015 Stanley Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2015 Fantasia International Film Festival For more in the 2015 Fantasia International Film Festival series, click here.

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10/05/15 G. Hilarious! 4 stars
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  18-Sep-2015 (R)



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