Rated R for horror violence and gore, language including sexual references, and some drug use
Cooties is the sort of awesome movie where the realization that it's an awesome movie takes some time to really hit you. It's the "zombie playground" artwork that went memetic a few years back turned into a movie in the vein of Zombieland or Shaun of the Dead, a violent zombie horror-comedy that, as it goes on, you start to realize isn't just resting on the absurdity of its premise to carry it to the finish line. No, the makers of this film, directors Jonathan Milott and Cary Murnion and writers Leigh Whannell and Ian Brennan, decided to sneak in a good movie here while nobody was looking. It's got its problems, to be sure, and there were a couple of times when it felt like it was gonna go off the rails, but it's a film that seems destined for "cult classic" status, working as a laugh-out-loud comedy, a genuinely scary movie at times, and a biting missive at the lack of respect teachers get these days.
The story follows Clint (Elijah Wood), a first-grade teacher and struggling (read: hack) writer who's returned from New York to spend the summer in his old hometown of Fort Chicken, Illinois, working on his novel and collecting extra paychecks as a substitute summer school teacher. There, he reconnects with his old sweetheart Lucy (Alison Pill), gets into a feud with her new boyfriend Wade (Rainn Wilson), and deals with all the other teachers trying to wrangle the little delinquents and troublemakers you'd expect to see in summer school. That job gets a lot harder once tainted chicken nuggets from the town's meat-packing plant start getting the kids sick. Symptoms include sores around the mouth, an animalistic rage, and a compulsive urge to spread the illness by scratching and biting people, and only people who haven't gone through puberty can get it (the rest just come down with mild flu-like symptoms)... in other words, it's a really, really nasty case of cooties. As teachers and chaperons are mauled to death on the playground, Clint, Lucy, Wade, and the other surviving staff and non-infected students must band together for survival.
This is a film that starts out with the promise of zombie kids getting murdered, and it just goes all-out bonkers from there. There's little way I could describe some of the things that happen in this movie that wouldn't sound totally ridiculous. It's a film that revels in the absurdity of its premise, delivering exactly what you'd expect given the plot description. You want to see a Chuck E. Cheese's playpen full of ravenous child zombies, the sort of thing that you'd only expect to find on Robot Chicken or in a really twisted indie video game? Oh, you've got it. This film never misses an opportunity for either some sick humor or genuine fear, and it manages to, for the most part, deftly balance the two, succeeding where many lesser horror-comedies failed. It's fully aware of how silly it is, but it never descends into total farce, keeping things just serious enough to put genuine stakes in both the horror and the humor.
That brings me to what keeps the whole thing from skidding out of control: its characters, particularly the three main protagonists, who carry the heart of this movie. Clint, Lucy, and Wade all feel that they don't get the respect they deserve from their students, the students' parents, or each other. They aren't in this job for the money -- it's not well-paying or prestigious, and people look at them like they only took the job because they were unable to find better employment, and to be perfectly honest, many of them are varying degrees of pathetic. Clint came back home because he felt that his life was unfulfilling, Lucy feels trapped in Port Chicken and secretly harbors nothing but loathing for her co-workers, and Wade is a former high school football hero turned grown-up burnout. But to call them lazy, or to claim that they don't care about the kids they're teaching, couldn't possibly be more wrong. Even with a story built entirely around dead kids, this is a film that I can see many, many teachers truly enjoying and embracing. The other adult protagonists are a bit less developed than I would have liked, but with a talented cast that includes Jack McBrayer, Nasim Pedrad, Jorge Garcia, and co-writer Leigh Whannell (who gets the most to do as the brainy Doug), they all bring something to the table. The only characters who really felt extraneous were the two uninfected kids, Calvin and Tamra, who are pretty much glorified extras who get only a couple of lines of dialogue between them. Likewise, while the love triangle between Clint, Lucy, and Wade did work for most of the film in developing the three of them as characters, the ultimate resolution of it towards the end wasn't particularly fulfilling, and felt like something of a cop-out. Finally, I wish this film had a bit more courage in killing off some of the main characters, as eventually, there came a point where the lack of deaths among the heroes started to cut into the stakes of the film.
Score: 4 out of 5
An imperfect film, but one that I still had a blast with. Recommended for any fan of zombies, horror-comedies, or the people involved, and simply a great time.