Opening with one of the most “fowl” (sorry folks) sequences I’ve seen this side of Tromaville, COOTIES starts things off right. The premise is simple: a tainted shipment of chicken nuggets infects a young girl at Fort Chicken Elementary with “cooties.” Like a traditional zombie outbreak, the infection spreads whenever someone is scratched or bitten. Unlike your typical living dead scenario, however, the virus only affects individuals who haven’t hit puberty…though it doesn’t make them any less dead once the cannibalistic children sink their teeth in (gives a whole new meaning to the term “ankle biter”). It’s a great setup, I just wish the film made better use of it.
I can’t say that the concept of “zombie kids running amok at school” is completely wasted here, Cooties fumbles it enough that I found myself distractedly inserting my own “what if” scenarios into the script as I watched. The main problem is that the film never slows down long enough to flesh anything out, including its ensemble cast. Clint (Elijah Wood), an aspiring writer recently returned to his home town of Fort Chicken, checks enough boxes to embody the “loveable loser” stereotype (soft-spoken, lives at home with his mom, starting a new job), but never transitions into the “hometown hero” role as you’d expect. Meanwhile, Wade (Rainn Wilson) goes from “jock jerk” to “insecure tough guy” to “one-liner spouting hero” without missing a beat (best line of the film: ““Nap time, motherfuckers!”).
The other characters? They pretty much just exist. Even Tamra (Morgan Lily) and Calvin (Armani Jackson), two school kids unaffected by the plague, are little more than set pieces. I was totally expecting them to provide the catalyst for Clint to rise to the occasion—much like Kenny and Elizabeth in Ernest Scared Stupid, but no. On the flip-side, the infected kids never really seem to devolve/mutate beyond a few minor face sores and, aside from the badass-to-begin-with Patriot (Cooper Roth), none of them get much to do except gnash their teeth and make growling noises. I’m sure it was a blast being on set, but in the final film it just comes across as white noise. The worst character in the script is Rick (Jorge Garcia), a stoner crossing guard whose presence serves no purpose throughout the entire film. None.
There are smaller issues too, such as when Wade references how 80s movies always had a music montage when the characters were gearing up for battle. Naturally, you’d expect that scene to segue into a tongue-in-cheek music montage, right? Nope. Instead, we get to listen to the rest of Wade’s speech while some instrumentals play softly in the background. It’s like trying to watch someone play a video game you’ve already beaten, you just want to shout out “No, jump left! Left! Agh, why’d you do that?!” Likewise, the introduction of a janitor living in the boiler room, Peter Kwong as Mr. Hatachi (possible a nod to Mr. Miner from Night of the Creeps?), also seems misplaced and unnecessary.
My gripes aside, there were a few good scenes…some of them even funny (in an absurdly gross way); like when Doug (Leigh Whannell) digs through human excrement without wearing gloves or when patient zero has one of her pigtails pulled right off her scalp (ouch!). There are also deeply horrifying scenes, such as when Wade bludgeons one of the infected to death. It’s certainly a turning point for his character and serves as a sobering reminder that these “zombies” are really just children who these adults were supposed to take care of—that’s deep stuff.
OUT OF 5
Cooties was not the film I was expecting it to be, but with tons of potential, a solid cast and a few laughs it still has few redeeming qualities. Worth a watch, but not a must-see.
+ Gross out humor
+ Pint-sized zombies
– Pointless characters
– Offbeat pacing
– Missed opportunities
– Unnecessary second ending