Review by Derrick Carter
Running Time: 1 hour 28 minutes
MPAA Rating: R for Horror Violence and Gore, Language including Sexual References, and some Drug Use
Directed by: Jonathan Milott & Cary Murnion
Written by: Ian Brennan & Leigh Whannell
Starring: Elijah Wood, Alison Pill, Rainn Wilson, Morgan Lily, Jack McBrayer, Jorge Garcia, Nasim Pedrad & Leigh Whannell
If you ever attend a film festival, you’ll quickly run into the ultimate first-world problem. Festival programmers schedule cool-sounding films simultaneously, so you’ll be forced to choose between two selections that you want to see. I was faced with such a dilemma at 2014’s Sundance Film Festival. My ultimate decision resulted in me not seeing COOTIES and instead, waiting over a year to finally catch this horror-comedy. COOTIES (now on VOD and in select theaters) turns out to be a fairly competent little film that delivers some good laughs and gore, but doesn’t quite stick the landing as a whole.
It’s no secret that educators don’t get enough respect. Clint understands that more than most. He’s a struggling writer turned substitute teacher at an isolated elementary school. His day starts off rough, but only gets worse when the kids eat some tainted chicken nuggets. The food virus turns these prepubescent bundles of joy into rage-fueled zombies. If there’s any hope of survival to be found in this pint-sized apocalyptic scenario, Clint and his mismatched teachers must band together to escape from the school.
Originally considered for a straight-faced serious horror flick and then quickly shifted into a far more obvious comedic approach, the premise for COOTIES is brimming with potential. Indeed, plenty of jokes regarding the public school system got big laughs out of me. The best of which point out how the creepiest guy is usually the one teaching sex ed and also lampoon political correctness to a ridiculous degree. However, the movie seems to forget midway through that it’s billed first and foremost as a zombie-comedy. Instead of going through dark laughs and bloody antics, the movie decides to focus on a sort of love-triangle between Clint, a former classmate and her gym teacher boyfriend. The zom-com angle is fun, but this love-triangle subplot is pointless filler.
Even when it’s unfocused, COOTIES manages to stay more than watchable due to a strong cast. Elijah Wood is playing the nerdy Clint and mainly serves as the straight-man to the colorful characters around him. Allison Pill is enjoyable as the perpetually happy teacher who seems to be repressing her frustration underneath the surface. Rainn Wilson is perfectly cast as the thick-headed, cocky gym teacher. Meanwhile, Leigh Whannel got the biggest laughs out of me as the socially awkward science teacher. Jack McBrayer is playing his usual typecast role to great effect. The rest of the side characters serve as brief comic relief or bloody casualties in the war between teachers and flesh-eating students.
Most people might go into COOTIES expecting crazy, over-the-top fights between teachers and zombie kids. However, we don’t get to see enough of that. There are great moments in the last half, but the film seems content playing out like a traditional zombie film (with characters cowering in the corner from the monsters). I feel that approach was a blunder, but I can’t deny the awesomeness of one long fight sequence in the final third. If you want to watch zombie kids (who were brats before even being turned into monsters) take baseballs to the face and receive one of the best gore gags I’ve seen so far this year, then the final third of COOTIES will mostly do the trick. I say “mostly” because this movie really doesn’t seem to have much of an ending. They seemed to be going in one direction and then lost momentum with a “I guess that’s it” final scene.
COOTIES is fun while it lasts, but definitely could and should have been better. There are good laughs to be had as well as one stellar practical effect in the finale. The cast do well in their parts, but the movie gets bogged down due to poor pacing and losing focus of the real story at hand. Overall, this is a decent horror-comedy that comes recommended if you want a time-killer about zombies, teachers, and tainted chicken nuggets.