A group of school teachers fight for their lives against a horde of zombie children. Is anywhere safe? Will Clint live to finish his novel? Is it possible to pronounce ‘dual rear wheel’?
Forget Jamie Oliver and his blender – once you’ve seen COOTIES, you’ll definitely want to avoid chicken nuggets for a while. Like a nightmarish version of the opening credits of Tim Burton’s CHARLIE AND THE CHOCOLATE FACTORY, the camera makes us pay close attention to the creation of the nugget that starts the ‘cooties’ pandemic, from shrieking, green-lit bird to brightly-coloured cafeteria.
The cause of the eventual chaos is referred to even after the film jumps to Elijah Wood’s character, Clint, as he wakes up to a news report that chicken nuggets are being recalled. Clint is the writer that nobody wants to become: pretentious, failing, and using a Dictaphone to remember lines such as ‘the boat was evil, but it was an acceptable level of evil’. Stephen King he isn’t, despite Wade, Rainn Wilson’s macho P.E. teacher, pointing out that he’s essentially rewriting CHRISTINE. After dealing with an anti-technology, air-quotes-misusing vice principal, Clint meets Wade and the rest of the teachers, including his old friend Lucy, and goes to teach his first lesson.
It’s in this lesson, intercut with scenes from Doug’s inappropriately graphic biology lesson and Rebekkah’s diatribe against governmental teaching regulations, that all hell breaks loose. Anyone who was bullied at school will feel a moment of satisfaction that the school bully is the first to be attacked, the girl we saw at the beginning of the film transformed into a wheezing, sore-covered savage and teaching him that it’s really not a good idea to pull other people’s hair. Carnage rapidly ensues as another infected child almost skips through the playground, scratching his peers, passing on the virus to them and generally creating bloody mayhem until it’s just the teachers against their former students.
The second act of COOTIES is its strongest, with all forms of communication with the outside world destroyed and the teachers working their way through the school to try and get to safety. The script sparkles with one-liners and moments of laugh-worthy humour, while Rainn Wilson is clearly having a whale of a time in Wade’s self-appointed role as leader: ‘I’m giving you an ‘F’ for ‘fuck you’.’ There’s also a liberal application of references to other films, including THE SHINING, DAWN OF THE DEAD, LOST HIGHWAY and ‘every other Eighties action movie’, with even a cheeky nod to Elijah Wood’s CV. Starting with a neutral and natural colour palette, the film’s threat is added to when the infected children cut the power: the school’s emergency lighting creates a stark contrast of blue and red, the latter colour becoming more prominent as the film continues. While the jump scares won’t make your popcorn fly into the air, there are enough moments of tension and genuine horror to ensure the film never settles into being a comfortable comedy with gory bits, while the constant juxtaposition of childhood objects and situations with the visceral horror of a zombie plague reaches a satisfying climax in the film’s third act.
Although there’s very little that’s wrong with COOTIES, the love-triangle subplot between Clint, Wade and Lucy feels like it’s shoehorned in. Even though it’s funny when Wade’s jealousy gets in the way of dealing with the zombie outbreak, it’s also frustrating and feels slightly lazy. Another lazy element is the broken-English-speaking janitor, Hitachi, who seems to have been drawn up in five minutes just because it would be cool to have a janitor turn out to be a martial arts expert, but he does get the last word in a post-credits scene. Having been shown the effect of the virus on an adult, essentially a particular nasty bout of gastritis, it’s a surprising and discordant moment for the audience when another infected person doesn’t exhibit the same symptoms, despite being technically also an adult.
Despite these niggles, COOTIES is an absorbing film which mixes comedy and seriousness perfectly – the horrible realisation that the virus is all over America is punctuated by the ever-scientific Doug pointing out that ‘pandemic’ is a better definition for what’s going on than ‘epidemic’, while the last few lines of the film produce a final, dry laugh. Tight, well-written and with enough gore to keep those with bloody appetites happy, COOTIES is a great zombie-horror film. Just don’t eat chicken nuggets while you’re watching.