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D: Jonathan Milott, Cary Murnion / 88m

Cast: Elijah Wood, Rainn Wilson, Alison Pill, Jack McBrayer, Leigh Whannell, Nasim Predad, Ian Brennan, Jorge Garcia, Cooper Roth, Miles Elliot, Morgan Lily, Sunny May Allison, Armani Jackson, Peter Kwong

Clint Hadson (Wood) is a would-be writer who finds himself back in his home town of Fort Chicken and making ends meet as a substitute teacher at the same elementary school he attended fifteen years ago. On his first day he finds the teachers are an odd mix, while the pupils in his class, particularly Patriot (Roth), are an unruly bunch who give him a hard time. Another of the pupils in his class, Shelly (Allison), is being bullied by Patriot but when he tugs at a ponytail and it comes off in his hand leaving a raw open wound where it was attached only seconds before, he finds himself being attacked by Shelly and having a chunk taken out of his cheek. Shelly runs off after the attack, while Clint takes Patriot to the nurse’s station.

Talking about it afterwards in the teachers’ lounge with Lucy McCormick (Pill), who was at school with Clint at the same time, they are oblivious to the situation that’s developing outside in the playground, as Shelly infects Patriot’s friend, Dink (Elliot), and he in turn begins infecting the other children. As the children’s behaviour turns savage, some of the teachers try to intervene but they’re quickly overwhelmed… and eaten. At the same time, PE teacher Wade Johnson (Wilson) – who’s shooting hoops in a corner of the playground – and the rest of the staff who are watching from the teachers’ lounge, begin to realise that what they’re seeing is an outbreak of zombie children.

Wade makes it back inside the school building, but the now ravenous pupils soon find their way in, and the remaining teaching staff hole up in the music room for safety; along the way they find Calvin (Jackson) who is unaffected. Wade is all for making a dash for his truck, while Clint thinks they should try and get help from the outside. But Lucy has a better idea: they should wait until 3pm when the parents arrive to pick up their children, and signal to them from the roof. But when the time comes only one parent arrives and she’s despatched as quickly as she arrived. Clint and the rest now head down to the hall where they find another unaffected child, Tamra (Lily). And when the hall is overrun, it’s the janitor, Mr Hatachi (Kwong), who comes to their rescue. Now barricaded in the basement, and with no choice but to find a way out, Clint and Wade come up with an idea between them that, if all goes well, will see them free of the school and its murderous pupils.

Cooties - scene

These days, zombie movies are a dime a dozen, and most are instantly forgettable, so any movie using them as the central protagonists really needs to bring something new and/or different to the table. And thanks to Leigh Whannell, creator of the Saw and Insidious franchises, Cooties certainly fits the bill, taking the (accepted) innocence of youth and destroying it with unrestrained malice. The idea of feral kids isn’t a new one, but here it’s taken to the extreme, with teachers being torn limb from limb, and entrails spread about with gory abandon. It’s a bloody exercise that’s reminiscent of the inmates taking over the asylum, but done here with a layer of crass humour to offset the blood spatters.

Be warned though: the movie isn’t as polished, or as funny as the trailer makes out, thanks largely to the script’s decision to keep the teachers moving from one breachable room to another, and by some poor choices when it comes to some of the characters’ quirks and foibles (Pedrad’s angry feminist practically accuses Clint of being a potential rapist without being properly introduced, while Tracy (McBrayer) talks about his partner’s lovely balls – his tennis partner that is). When the movie attempts to subvert the genre it’s on firmer ground, as when Whannell’s scientifically knowledgeable Doug announces he’s discovered the cause of the outbreak to be a virus, and has done so by rooting around in Clint’s vomit and “anal leakage”; when the rest of the staff voice their disgust he rebukes them by saying he wore gloves – and holds up his hands which are clearly glove-free.

Making children into zombies turns out to be a whole lot of fun by itself, and the young cast are clearly having fun with it all, especially Roth and Allison who are the Adam and Eve of the zombie outbreak. The kids aren’t funny at all (which is a relief), and their ferocity is well-gauged, leaving the humour to the adults, and in particular to Wilson, whose bullish PE teacher is ill-equipped to deal with the finer emotions such as love and trust, and who finds it impossible to say “dual rear wheels” (one of the movie’s funnier moments). There’s a great deal of physical humour too – Lucy whacking one of the kids with a plastic umbrella, Wade constructing a weapon out of a tennis ball launcher – as well as a couple of inspired visual gags. It all works intermittently, but still has enough energy and verve to see it through, despite the obvious low budget and presumably short shooting period.

The performances are engaging, with Wood evincing wide-eyed surprise at the sudden, horrific turn of events, while Wilson plays Wade as a stubborn jackass who comes good in the end, and Pill does perky and bubbly before having a Rambo moment that leaves Wilson, for once, upstaged and put in his place. Garcia is the pot-smoking school guard who can’t believe what he’s seeing from the safety of his van, and Kwong is the fierce Oriental janitor who wants to tell the story of the caterpillar and the frog (you have to wait until after the end credits to hear the end of the story). In the directors’ chairs, Milott and Murnion keep things moving but don’t always get the rhythm right, and some scenes are shot with a flatness of style that hurts the movie by virtue of standing out so easily.

Rating: 6/10 – enjoyable hokum that fans of the comedy-horror genre will lap up, Cooties still struggles to maintain a clear focus, and rarely feels as confident as it should do; that said, it is good fun, and has a winning approach that does let some level of disappointment to be overlooked, but in the end, the chase elements are wearying, and there’s not enough balance in the way the differing components are assembled.