Particularly for childless adults, children can seem like monsters, depraved little creatures of bottomless need and want unregulated by civility and concern for social niceties. The glib new horror comedy Cooties cleverly transforms kids from symbolic monsters into literal ones after a weird poultry-derived malady causes innocent school children to devolve into mindless zombies desperate to consume human flesh. It might seem like every possible permutation of zombie movie has been made already (as if to underline just how zombie-crazed pop-culture has become, there was recently a film called Zombeavers), but Cooties adds a new element of inter-generational combat to this appropriately deathless and increasingly massive subsection of the horror-movie world.
But before Cooties is a zombie movie, it is an earnest-young-teacher movie that diligently subscribes to every cliché of the form. Elijah Wood, who many years ago visited this terrain from an opposite angle in The Faculty, now plays Clint Hadson, a struggling aspiring writer who pays the bills working as a teacher and enduring the never-ending gauntlet of low-level humiliation the job entails. At his new school, Clint reunites with Lucy (Alison Pill), a formative crush and new co-worker unfortunately in a relationship with gym teacher Wade Johnson (Rainn Wilson), an alpha-male whose hairy-chested, mustachioed conception of rugged masculinity can be traced back to vintage 1970s-era Burt Reynolds.
Directors Jonathan Milott and Cary Murnion and screenwriters Ian Brennan and Leigh Whannell (who visited this territory in a slightly more dour way with his scripts for two Saw movies) surround this central love triangle with a series of broadly drawn caricatures out of a workplace sitcom: shrill right-wing ideologue Rebekkah Halverson (Nasim Pedrad), gay guy Tracy (Jack McBrayer), and stoner Rick (Jorge Garcia), who makes the mistake of taking hallucinogenic mushrooms right before his world turns into a waking nightmare.
Whannell does double duty as the film’s most original and entertaining character, a genius with a remarkable, if consistently malfunctioning, brain full of suspiciously relevant scientific information that comes in awfully handy once the students become zombie-like monsters. In classic zombie-movie tradition, the teachers barricade themselves inside a momentarily safe haven—in this case the elementary-school building—and struggle to put their personal and philosophical differences aside as they try to figure out a strategy for survival against long, if not impossible, odds.
If Cooties subscribes slavishly to the conventions of teacher movies, it at least has fun with them. It may be a groaning cliché, for example, for a young teacher to be plugging away at a novel whose existence points to the admirable ambition of doing something more noble—or at least more glamorous—then educating children. But Cooties breathes new life into this hoary old trope by making Clint’s novel a hilariously dodgy and confusing-sounding horror epic about a mysterious sentient boat of pure evil. And if the characters are unmistakably stereotypes, they are at least amusing stereotypes, although the circumspectly central role of Wilson’s character suggests the part was dramatically expanded to fit the actor’s relative fame compared to his costars.
Cooties derives its novelty, as well as its mild shock value, from a plot that requires adults whose lives revolve around educating children being in a position where they need to destroy those children for the sake of survival. Of course, these brain-hungry creeps aren’t really children, but inhuman monsters in the bodies of children. Still, there’s something guiltily, creepily transgressive and wickedly entertaining about seeing teachers coldly dispatching their ostensible charges. Cooties makes this teacher-versus-students death-match element more feasible by depicting the students, beyond an obnoxious brat named Patriot, as poorly differentiated abstractions who don’t have any personality before their hideous transformations. Cooties isn’t asking audiences to root for the destruction of children they have come to know and like, but for the destruction of pint-sized versions of regular zombies. That might make the film more palatable and less offensive, but it also renders it less edgy, funny, and audacious.
A short, briskly paced combination of teacher comedy and anarchic horror-comedy, Cooties realizes a lot of its enormous potential, but doesn’t quite make the grade. Its glibness is both a strength and a weakness. While it’s entertaining throughout, the film ultimately doesn’t quite cut deep enough or go dark enough to merit the cult following it is so clearly after.