I think Cooties was either written by an elementary school teacher, or written by someone who is good friends with one. I don’t necessarily say this because of the basic concept of kids turning into flesh-eating zombies after eating tainted chicken nuggets that are a plain call back to the pink slime scare. And it’s not even necessarily the unholy glee the teachers show when taking out some of the evil children with makeshift weapons later on. No, what made me think that somewhere in this script lives the experience of a teacher was when I watched the main character, Clint (Elijah Wood) talking to his incoherent, air quote-wielding principal about his “pedagogical style.” Well, that, and when he deals with the obnoxious child named Patriot. (Because he was born on 9/11 you see, obviously sent by God to sit in Clint’s classroom and play with his cell phone instead of paying attention.)
The plot is the same as most zombie movies: zombies happen, people try to survive, and since this is a comedy, hijinks ensue. The twist that this is zombie children versus elementary school teachers isn’t exactly revolutionary, and it doesn’t need to be. It’s setup for a lot of funny gags. It’s also the setup for a lot of very creepy shots, because any horror element is about a thousand times more discomfiting when there’s a kid involved.
Cooties has the same general mix of horror and funny that I saw and loved in Shaun of the Dead, though the humor is less dry and the horror is a little more gory. The characters fighting for their lives against the zombie hordes are generally pretty lovable. We have Clint, who is in denial of the fact that he’s a teacher in favor of his dream of being a writer. He’s particularly funny and painful to watch if you’re a writer yourself, as he tells everyone, a note of desperation in his voice, that he’s a capital-W Writer rather than a teacher and has the kids in his class read his rough draft out loud. (Clint, honey. No.) We’ve all been some shade of that guy for at least a couple minutes of our lives, or known someone who has. Rainn Wilson plays Wade, the self-consciously masculine PE teacher who ultimately relieves his glory high school athlete days by being a team player. Lucy (Alison Pill) seems like a stereotypical first grade teacher until she reveals the seething rage she keeps under her cheery exterior. Nasim Pedrad does an excellent impression of a coherent Sarah Palin as gun-obsessed Rebekah. Jack McBrayer is rather Kenneth-like in his portrayal of Tracy, but considering Kenneth was my favorite part of 30 Rock, I think that’s a good thing. And last there’s the weird, socially awkward genius guy Doug (Leigh Wannell) who turns out to be the funniest out of all of them because he’s got such good foils to play off.
It’s funny, it’s got plenty of fake gore, and it’s got a few tense, creepy scenes without relying on jump scares. As a certified horror wimp, I didn’t find it at all scary; it doesn’t even meet the oog factor of the Cabin in the Woods. But whoever did the sound design for this movie deserves a medal. The sounds they came up with for the zombie kids, roaring and shrieking and over it all a childish giggle, were nothing short of disturbing. The only truly unsatisfying thing about the movie is structure: the plot sort of peters off at the end without even the conclusion of “and then everyone got eaten.” It feels like the story just runs out of steam and stops, its characters and funny ideas exhausted, before an actual conclusion is achieved.
On sober reflection, there are a few things that bother me about the film now that I’m not focused on just laughing at the jokes. The further I get from being in that moment, the more annoyed I get about the movie’s incredibly typical casting decisions. For example, while I know that small towns in the midwest can be incredibly white, Fort Chicken isn’t two stop signs and a Walmart. It’s presented as a reasonably sized town, but there are very few splashes of color: Calvin (Armani Jackson), who is the single most adorable kid I have ever seen in my life, and a black teacher who is the first one to get messily eaten by the students. The janitor, Mr. Hitachi (Peter Kwong) is a certifiable, heroic, garden shear-wielding badass, but he’s also a cringe-inducing Asian stereotype, complete with very broken English. (Really. Why was this necessary?)
What annoys me even more is that in a horror movie that takes place in a freaking elementary school, there are only two adult female characters with major speaking roles. Two. Out of a cast of six teachers, one principal, and two miscellaneous staff members, less than a quarter of the total surviving staff–only a third of the teachers–are women, when women make up over 75% of the teaching staff at US elementary schools.
Look, I’m willing to suspend my disbelief for creepy zombie children infected by evil chicken nuggets. But when the amount of female roles in any given film normally ranges between depressing and downright pathetic, the creative decision involved in making casting yet again all about the men for characters placed in one of the most female-dominated work environments in the country is just insulting.
And of course, one of the major throughlines was tension between Clint and Wade because they were both pissing on Lucy’s leg without any indication of why she might like either of them. Woman as object for men to fight over is a cheap plot device to cause friction between characters. It’s one that I might not even complain about, since men (and people in general!) certainly can be possessive shitheads, if it weren’t done and done and overdone to the point that it’s been standardized. That her relationship status was Lucy’s main role in the plot when the boys have already taken over her workplace just annoys me to no end. And I liked Lucy’s character. When she wasn’t being referee for Clint and Wade the manbabies, she acted as the glue that held the group together. She had some great moments, including getting to tell everyone that she hated them after she finally got fed up with the nonsense.
Ultimately, if you like the zombie comedy/horror thing and you don’t have constitutional objections to zombie kids (and can look past the Mr. Hitachi stereotype), this movie is pretty darn fun and definitely worth a watch. It’s just not funny or well-crafted enough to fight past its structural issues for a more permanent place by Shaun of the Dead on my DVD shelf.