by Kayla McCulloch on Oct 17, 2019

There’s no shortage of zombie comedies this year. The undead have permeated the 2010s as a hugely successful horror motif, with a few more examples arriving right under the wire as the decade comes to a close. Jim Jarmusch’s The Dead Don’t Die kicked off the summer with a bit of dry social satire, while Reuben Fleischer’s Zombieland (2009) follow-up Zombieland: Double Tap — which is (somewhat surprisingly) the name of a real movie and not a Zombieland-themed mobile game — reunites the original cast for more gut-busting gore late this week. Crammed between the two is Little Monsters, an Australian zom-com from writer-director Abe Forsythe. In spite of being a zombie movie, Forsythe’s third feature is a Frankenstein’s monster of sorts: He’s Australian (as is the humor and one of its stars, Alexander England), but the movie’s other two leads, American Josh Gad and Kenyan-Mexican Lupita Nyong’o, bring their own distinctive sensibilities to the film. Consequently, Little Monsters winds up being a spasmodically entertaining and idiosyncratic zomedy.

At this point, viewers are well aware of how a zombie movie should work — George A. Romero’s seminal Night of the Living Dead (1968) serves as the framework here, and it’s been followed and remixed by countless entries in the subgenre. What’s clever about Forsythe’s take is that he seems to adamantly resist Little Monsters’ devolution into chaos. The film opens with a couple in the throes of an hours-long, relationship-ruining argument for the ages. Now single and without an apartment, Dave (England) has no choice but to crash with his sister Tess (Kat Stewart) and her kindergarten-aged son Felix (Diesel La Torraca). Given his immaturity and cynicism, it doesn’t take long for Dave to get himself (and Felix) into trouble. In just one afternoon with his nephew, Dave overturns Tess’ half-decade of delicate single parenting. If Dave wants to stick around, Tess insists, he will have to assimilate — and he can start by dropping Felix off at school the following morning.

The last thing Dave expects it to encounter at said school is someone like Miss Caroline (Nyong’o) — a pastel-wearing, ukulele-playing, Taylor Swift-singing kindergarten teacher who leads her class with equal parts confidence and grace. Despite being decidedly more punk-rock than singer-songwriter, Dave does everything within his power to capture her affection… including volunteering to be a chaperone on the class' field trip the following day. Cut to a U.S. military base a few hundred miles from the petting zoo Miss Caroline’s class will soon be visiting: A previously contained flesh-eating disease has been released, resulting in a slew of zombies that are headed straight for the kids. Miss Caroline and Dave — along with Teddy McGiggle (Gad), a children’s television personality who is revealed to be vindictive and abrasive in real life — have to defend themselves and keep the kids safe from harm, all while maintaining the illusion that it’s all part of the field trip.

A zombie movie’s effectiveness lies in its setting. As Night of the Living Dead established, constraining the story primarily to a single location is smart — it creates a sense of claustrophobia and an urgency that just isn’t there if the characters are fleeing from place to place. The protagonists have to be trapped somewhere, and that somewhere has to be interesting. Little Monsters chooses the gift shop at the petting zoo, which is certainly an inspired decision. There are stuffed animals and souvenirs to keep the class relaxed (and distracted) while the adults try to figure out a plan. Its central location also allows them to see what’s going on throughout the petting zoo, making potential escape plans a bit easier to formulate. They might be surrounded by the undead on all sides, but there’s enough resources inside the gift shop for Miss Caroline to maintain a serene stasis — as it turns out, there’s no such thing as too many “Shake It Off” sing-alongs.

There’s another crucial component to a zom-com’s success: whether or not the characters are worth caring about. Dave comes across as infantile and resentful from the get-go, yelling at his girlfriend in public and refusing to comply with his sister’s rules, but the zombie outbreak reveals a softer side to him that evokes some sympathy from the viewer. Alexander England hasn’t been in much — apart from a small role in Alien: Covenant (2017), the actor’s filmography is relatively sparse — but his performance in Little Monsters is enough to suggest some potential. Lupita Nyong’o, on the other hand, doesn’t have anything to prove. The Oscar-winning actor and a horror movie alum — her dual roles in Jordan Peele’s sophomore feature Us was one of this year's highlights — portrays Miss Caroline as a woman whose compassion and elegance never flag, even in the face of apocalyptic calamity. As expected, Gad is Gad — his comedic stylings continue to rely on the kind of over-the-top emoting typically reserved for multi-cam sitcoms.

What might be most remarkable about Little Monsters is that there’s no real satirical target. The zombies don’t symbolize how we’ve become addicted to technology or subjugated by our daily routines. One could argue that the outbreak’s source — an American military base — could be a comment on neo-imperialism, but Forsythe doesn’t explore this beyond the installation’s role as a plot device. The film’s zombies are just zombies, which means that Little Monsters is just a zombie comedy, Nyong’o’s first-rate performance notwithstanding. It’s still an inventive entry in the subgenre, however. Subjecting a batch of five-year-olds to the horrors of a zombie apocalypse isn’t exactly well-trod territory  — only 2015’s more transgressive Cooties springs to mind — and filmmakers could stand to emulate Forsythe’s creativity if they insist on keeping this festering subgenre alive. For now, Little Monsters is amusing enough to serve as a 90-plus-minute distraction this Halloween season. Come for the standard zombie movie scares, stay for the diverting comedy of Josh Gad guzzling hand sanitizer and Lupita Nyong’o fearlessly strumming along to Taylor Swift.

Rating: B-

Little Monsters is now available to stream from Hulu.