Just when you think the zombie genre is completely played out, with the likes of The Walking Dead going on well past their best before date, along comes another excellent zombie movie from Australia. Little Monsters is a film that could be best described as the first “feel-good zombie movie” of our generation.
We are first introduced to Dave (Alexander England), a self-centered man-child whom, through a brutal montage, we see constantly fighting with his girlfriend Sara (Nadia Townsend), which eventually results in a breakup due to Dave’s refusal to have kids. He ends up crashing with his sister, Tess (Kat Stewart) and her son, Felix (Diesel La Torraca), an adorable five-year-old whose love of Darth Vader could end up saving the day. Dave’s penchant for inappropriate behaviour — he curses worse than a sailor and lets Felix play zombie-killing video games — almost gets him kicked out of this safe harbor, but there is a silver lining in this spiraling downward curvature that has become Dave’s life: this bright spot comes in the form of Miss Caroline (Lupita Nyong’o), Felix’s kindergarten teacher. When he learns that a volunteer can’t make it to the kindergarten class’s excursion to Pleasant Valley Farms, Dave jumps in and volunteers himself, even though he is clearly not a huge fan of kids. Unfortunately, Pleasant Valley Farms is located next to US Army Testing Facility, where something called “Project Rejuvenation” leads to a zombie outbreak.
The interesting thing about Little Monsters is that while it’s an R-rated horror film, with various characters exuding profanity whenever possible and includes the prerequisite amount of gore for a zombie film, it’s still quite a sweet film. Now, zombie/comedies are nothing new — Shaun of the Dead and Zombieland being kings of that sub-genre — but Little Monsters is also a kind of kid’s movie in the vein of School of Rock, which unfortunately does hurt the horror aspect a little, as that is a hard balancing act to pull off. Death abounds at every turn, yet director Abe Forsythe does his best to ensure that the key children of our story never seem to be in any actual danger — a slow-moving conga line of children are somehow able to keep out of the clutches of an even slower-moving horde of zombies — so at no point do we ever fear for the lives of this particular kindergarten class. We do see dozens of kid zombies wandering around Pleasant Valley Farms, so one would think everyone is fair game in this movie, but the heroic Miss Caroline never loses one of hers.
Even though Little Monsters never quite manages to create the necessary sense of peril that a zombie film requires to function — even the military’s ticking clock to bombing the zoo fails to add tension to the proceedings — it instead focuses on the two adults who are thrown together, one a man-child the other a capable teacher, as they desperately try to cope with what looks to be a hopeless situation, one with the added wrinkle of the group also being stuck with a narcissistic, world-famous child entertainer, Teddy McGiggles (Josh Gad). Teddy is not the kind of person you’d want to be stuck with during catastrophe, as his response to people in dire need is basically, “You can all suck a bag of dicks,” and thus, any bad situation will only be made worse by his involvement. This, of course, leads to Dave having to step up and be the hero his nephew needs him to be.
Aside from tiny Darth Vader — who must be an homage to the kid from that Volkswagen commercial — the standout performer in this film is Lupita Nyong’o, who we see go from the sweet Taylor Swift-singing kindergarten teacher, and master of the ukulele, to someone who manages to make her charges believe the zombie outbreak is all part of an elaborate game — “And we’re winning” — while also being a believable action hero when required (not that this is much of a stretch considering her most recent films include Black Panther and Jordan Peele’s Us). It’s her performance here that really grounds the film; sure, Alexander England is fine as the “bad uncle that makes good,” and Josh Gad is fun as the sex-addicted child entertainer who we know will die horribly at some point, but it’s Lupita Nyong’o who really carries the film. Without her, we wouldn’t have a movie. But what about the zombies? What kind of zombies do we get in this film? As mentioned, this particular strain of zombies are not at all threatening, as they make the shuffling horde from the Romero films look like the rage sprinters from 30 Days Later by comparison, and they can’t even manage to break into a bloody gift shop.
Are those windows made out of super-glass?
The film will occasionally cut to the military to see how they are dealing with the crisis, which is in the stereotypically bad way as seen in countless zombie films, and we never find out what “Project Rejuvenation” actually is — a typical zombie MacGuffin I guess — but there is one somewhat meta moment with the military that I particularly enjoyed:
Soldier: “Lieutenant, Sir, why are we here?”
Lieutenant: “Zombies, again.”
Soldier: “Fast ones or slow ones, Sir?”
Lieutenant: “Slow, we need to contain the infection, so shoot anything that moves.”
I hate films that avoid the word “zombie” as if acknowledging it would somehow hurt the world the filmmakers are trying to create, but in the world of Little Monsters, it is a badge they wholeheartedly embrace — no one is calling them “Walkers” or “Biters” — in fact, the zombies in this universe may be a known and recurring threat. I really enjoyed Little Monsters and though it may not be the best zombie movie out there I appreciate the filmmakers for not only embracing the sub-genre but for somehow making a “feel-good” entry in a field that tends toward depressing and nihilistic endings. So, if you are in the mood for a rollicking, fun-filled adventure with a zombie horde, one that includes an off-the-wall performance by Josh Gad as well as a lot of heart, then I suggest you give Little Monsters a try.
Little Monsters (2019)
Movie Rank - 6.5/10
If you are not already in love with Lupita Nyong’o than watch Little Monsters and see her as the best kindergarten teacher in the history of the world, though the zombie action is a bit on the light side – lots of gore but little stakes – the supporting cast of Josh Gad and Alexander England offer stellar work making this a well-rounded horror comedy.