Review by Rob Vaux
More than anything else Cooties represents a cathartic scream for anyone who’s ever had to teach elementary school. Obviously every teacher needs to be fair and equitable, keep their cool, maintain an even keel, etc. But deep down, most of them probably know who the troublemakers are, have watched them wreak untold psychological damage on peers and adults alike, and would like just one shining moment to knock the little brats into next week. Cooties taps into that subversive desire and develops it into a remarkably efficient variation of the zombie apocalypse scenario.
The wrinkle is that the virus (delivered through a cut-rate school lunch, nach) only affects those who haven’t gone through puberty, quickly turning a suburban elementary school into a horror-laden siege for the hapless staff. Their ranks include the folks you expect – a wet-noodle everyman (Elijah Wood) trying to convince himself he’s destined for better things; a gung-ho gym teacher (Rainn Wilson) who never really outgrew the playground; a Pollyanna sweetheart (Alison Pill) sitting on a hidden volcano of rage; and that one guy (Leigh Whannell) who seems to be there just because the local lunatic asylum is out of room.
None of them are unexpected, but they make for some very funny protagonists, thanks to a wonderful script from Whannell, Ian Brennan (who himself has a great cameo as the feckless vice principal) and Josh C. Waller who really follow through on the comedic potential of the scenario. The cast understands timing and delivery profoundly well, as well as those little ways to push their characters past the clichés and into the realm of relatable human beings. Every time the film seems ready to launch into full-bore farce, some lovely little moment comes touching down to connect us to their shattered dreams and valiant efforts to make a difference. It helps accentuate the humor – which is often quite barbed at points – and lend it some relatable qualities beyond just laughing at the absurdity of the whole thing.
And lest we slip too far down the scale into pure parody, Cooties serves up a reasonably hard-core amount of violence as well. The zombie kids engage in the kind of cannibalistic mayhem normally reserved for The Walking Dead at its most vicious, and though we don’t take any of it seriously for a minute, it might take more squeamish viewers by surprise. The violence also provides the film’s few problem spots, particularly the end which feels like they didn’t quite know how to wrap things up and settled for setting things on fire instead.
But that comes on top of the precise kind of ghoulish brilliance that horror aficionados crave, and which provides a lovely counterpoint to the darker impulses that the genre has often shown. Wood, who also helped produce the film as well as star in it, has shown a deep affection for horror throughout his career, and his keen eye for good material suggests that he can help elevate these kinds of projects to something truly special. It takes careful filmmaking to find the right mixture of tones, but this crew pulls it off quite well, and with theaters increasingly hostile to projects of this ilk, it’s gratifying to know that VoD and Blu-ray releases can deliver it straight into the arms of the people who understand its unique vibes.
Regardless, Cooties stands as a delicious treat for gorehounds, as well as those who survived elementary school as a child or an adult. Zombie movies do best when they shine a light on something more real than the flesh-eating undead: some shortcoming of society that we’ve all battled against with varying degrees of frustration. Romero always understood that, as does The Walking Dead, and while this film doesn’t quite reach their level, it respects it material enough to get closer than you might expect. Those playgrounds can really be hell, a fact this film understands without either lending the idea too much gravitas or suggesting that the pain inflicted is all just a joke. It simply adds a nasty little bite, then sits back and watches the fireworks. If you appreciate horror-comedy, you’d be well advised to take a seat by its side.