The unexpected film genre-du-jour in 2019 is the zombie-comedy film. As I am writing this, there are three of these playing in Australian cinemas, and frankly I’m surprised as much as you are. Zombie-comedies were an answer to fatigued genre that didn’t have much new to give, so by the time Edgar Wright’s instrumental Shaun Of The Dead redefined the genre to the gentle sensibilities of popular culture, it was a gentle wink to an audience that both wanted to revel in the nostalgic feeling of the familiar, and demanded a bit of a new and refreshing edge. Zombie-comedies play in the fine line of the rules of horror, play with the audience’s expectations, and reframe the tension by putting the audience (and sometimes even its characters) in the know. It’s self-referential because it knows that the mere naming of the genre is, in itself, meta.
Since 2004 it seems that every year we get a new one, which is ironic for a category that started specifically has a reaction to the predictability of horror. Little Monsters, directed by Abe Forsythe, is another Australian take (there have been a few over the years), and what it adds to the category is absolutely nothing. This is the rare zombie family that could’ve been exactly the same if the living dead were replaced with anything you want – rabid cows? Sure. Silly firemen with fluffy hats? Why not. A baboon? Yes. Actually that one would’ve probably make a better film.
The story revolves around a good-for-nothing unsuccessful musician, Dave (Alexander England) who chaperones his nephew’s field trip to a farm so he can get closer to the teacher Miss Caroline (Lupita Nyong’o). Unfortunately there’s an outbreak in a nearby secret US army base and soon enough Dave, Miss Caroline and Teddy McGiggle (Josh Gad), a famous kid’s TV-star that is somehow involved, have to protect all the children until the military intervenes.
If most of the plot was this, like a kind of Life Is Beautiful but with zombies and annoyingly unlikable protagonists, it would be partially fine, but if you caught the film from the start you’ll be presented with a long and contrived set-up of Dave’s life until the outbreak – he argues with his girlfriend, catches her cheating on him, moves in with his sister, meets Miss Caroline. There are 20 minutes of irrelevant set-up before we even get a glimpse of what was promised. The problem is that none of that means anything in the grander scheme of the world of this film. Remember the opening credits of Shaun Of The Dead with the tracking shot of normal citizens in performing mundane tasks like they are mindlessly dead? Little Monsters doesn’t have that level of ingeniousness.
More aggravating is how it develops our characters. Dave’s journey is simply finding meaning to his aimless life via caring about others – nothing new here – but it’s his characteristics that lay bear the film’s shortcomings. He’s crude, rude, moronic and child-like, or at least what a child thinks a crude, rude, moronic and child-like person is. There’s nothing subtle or gentle about his persona, so he goes on about like a man that doesn’t exist. I figure that this is so we can have some good comedy skits about his complete cluelessness of ordinary behaviour, but it doesn’t work like that because the film never paces itself like one of those comedies where one of these characters would live. Instead it tries to make important moral points about responsibility, but neither of them are important enough to have weight, nor do they connect with any of the metaphors presented – of which, I believe, there are none.
The production team that managed to convince both Lupita Nyongo’o and Josh Gad to be part of this film. That’s some impressive work right there.
A half-assed script could’ve gotten away with the lazy characters, the cheap morals, the lack of drive and the long set-up, if it delivered in the comedy. It doesn’t. It’s like a personification of a living dead – slow, aimless, and you kind of just want to shoot him in the head to spare his misery.