Written by Ian Brennan, Leigh Whannell, and Josh C. Waller
Directed by Jonathan Milott and Cary Murnion
Genre movies can have problems. When a filmmaker loves a genre so much, and they make a film under that umbrella, they often become derivative without bringing anything new to the table. No kind of film is guilty of this more, in my opinion than zombie movies. American zombie movies look to Night of the Living Dead and now in the 21st century, 28 Days Later, and just mimic what they see there. Each film has some sort of unique hook but inevitably breaks down into predictable pablum that we’ve seen playing out dozens of times before. Cooties starts with promise but does down that same disappointing path.
Clint (Elijah Wood) has been forced to move back in with his mom after a failed shot at being a writer in New York City. Back in his hometown of Fort Chicken, Illinois, Clint takes a job as a substitute teacher to make some money and is reunited with his childhood crush Lucy (Alison Pill). Any chance at rekindling those affections is stomped out by the P.E. teacher Wade (Rainn Wilson). As Clint settles into his day teaching fourth grade, something strange happens with one of his students. She violently attacks a cocky classmate and escapes deeper into the school. From there, things go south as she spreads an infection that turns the entire student body of this elementary school into ravenous zombies.
This is a great premise, and the movie sets itself up as a comedy very early on, about the only way you can tackle this take on the zombie movie. However, the script is awful once you reach the second act, some pretty significant plot inconsistencies arise to make things convenient, and the movie just ends without any resolution. The whole first act is fantastic, setting up the characters and letting the audience in on the infection while everyone else is oblivious. Leigh Whannell (co-creator of Saw and Insidious) has a talent for dark comedy, and I wish more of that intelligence has been present here because once the zombie outbreak occurs, the movie pivots between two rather uninteresting points: gore as a substitution for jokes and unlikeable characters talking.
The opening sequence of the picture made me think that this would be a witty satire of the factory food industry. A worker at a chicken farm is posed as a zombie as a little visual trick on the audience. Instead, we see that one of the chickens has an infection and it is chucked into the grinder where the film follows the making of a single nugget infected with the virus. All the way to where a young girl, our patient zero, has it placed on her cafeteria tray, and she bites in, causing the nugget to ooze a gray-green substance. That entire food industry element never returns for the rest of the film. The place is named Fort Chicken, for god’s sake, and the writers didn’t think to maybe have a third act occur in the factory/at the farm?
So, you say maybe this is going to be a satire of what it’s like to be a teacher, feeling overwhelmed by the students? Not really. What the movie ultimately ends up being when it comes to its characters is a love triangle between Clint, Lucy, and Wade. It’s very predictable and doesn’t provide the humor in the film. You have a couple of broad comedy stock characters in Nasim Pedrad and Jack McBrayer’s teachers, but the really clever humor comes from Leigh Whanell as Doug. Doug is a socially awkward science teacher who ends up being the film’s chief exposition device. He happens to understand lots of things about this virus, and to keep him from becoming a script machine, Whanell gives him some fairly amusing behaviors and reactions.
The writing of Cooties feels profoundly limited as if they couldn’t get past the basic tropes of zombie movies. Once the teaching staff hunkers down inside, the story grinds to a dull and uninteresting halt. You get a scene of character crawling through air ducts with zombies on their heels. You have them suiting up with equipment from inside the school to make a “one last stand” to get to the truck outside. It’s things you’ve seen before, done better in other zombie movies. What’s most disappointing in my opinion is the waste of such a talented cast who could have made this at least an enjoyable cult film. What would be best is for Cooties to be forgotten, another cheap horror flick to throw on the pile.