Contains mild spoilers.
Now whilst I personally don't feel we're quite witnessing the end of our collective unconditional love affair with the zombie, I think perhaps we're definitely moving to a period where the relationship will be tempered and better defined. The Walking Dead bubble whilst strong in its centre has definitely shrunk and the great zombie experiment that pushed the undead gut-muncher to an increasingly new and mainstream audience is definitely showing signs of decline. Fads are cyclical; the modern zombie zeitgeist was always doomed, not to fail, but to be replaced with something new. While you may ponder that this a strange thing for a zombie film fanatic to say, I'll add I think it's not only a healthy thing but a necessary thing. The zombie isn't going to go away; it's a disturbed metaphor that transcends era and I believe as long as life and death and all their intrinsic paradoxes are played with then they will always have a place at the media table. The thing is, and I think if we're all honest we'll agree, the time has come for discernment, for less. We just don't need yet another zombie first person shooter, nor do we need yet another derivative SyFy survival bore-fest; and we certainly don't need yet another gleeful, glib and by the numbers zom-rom-com.
Now I almost feel sorry for the big movie executives and decision makers sat atop their mountains of cash watching The Walking Dead craze run amok and not knowing how exactly to join in and exploit it. Horror is a difficult beast to tame and best left to those who truly get the dark and twisted. A gritty and serious endeavour needs vision, a really great script, and the nerve of a director to stay on course, which leaves the safe bet. I all too often come away from a zom-rom-com with the feeling I've watched the brain-child of someone who knows a little of the modern zombie but does understand the rudiments and formulae of how to make a romantic comedy; and that as long as the audience leaves somewhat satisfied and entertained; which they undoubtedly will, then all is good. The thing is, drowning as we are in a plethora of zombie content, one can't just rely on them anymore to carry a film by their mere presence. Each iterative offering sees their impact diluted, so consequently the rest needs to be better. Maybe I'm jaded; I certainly sound jaded, but that's the very problem with director Jonathan Milott and Cary Murnion's Cooties. Strip away the shock of the zombie school children, and the rom-com that's left doesn't particularly hold up to any kind of scrutiny.
Avian influenza; bird Flu, and the constant battle to quell the next great cross species pandemic makes for a great zombie backstory, and here the obvious yet effective satirical swipe at intensive food processing, chicken nuggets and cheap school dinners starts Cooties off, well on track. A single infected girl oozing in class with all that unlocked horror potential then boom! A no-nonsense zombie outbreak, kids running, teachers being eaten; blood guts and black humour; things were good, nay great, and I could even overlook, for a while, the rather obvious and rambling one dimensional characters I soon realised I was going to be stuck with. To be fair to the actors they do actually do some justice to them, though how much they could actually do with the presumably one-line character synopsis they were given is debatable. Clint Hadson (Elijah Wood) is a failed writer come back to live with mum and sub at the local elementary school fifteen years after leaving. An hour and a half later, I could perhaps add he's a bit of a dick with some creepy crush on an ex he hasn't seen since leaving, but did stalk. I could tell you even less about said crush Lucy McCormick, (Alison Pill) a teacher already there; or her boyfriend the stereo-typical sport teacher Wade Johnson (Rainn Wilson).
It just all feels like a film by committee with little to no focus or emphasis on fleshing out or developing likeable characters with, instead, an over confident reliance on the highly designed interactions with the zombie horde to see things through; seven producers and co-producers seems to argue that this is the case. There is the argument, however that this nearly works and Cooties is, for all I've criticised it, still a great zombie film with sumptuous set pieces, some tense zombie hide and seek, copious and undiluted, taking into account their children, violence and gore... So what am I trying to say? Just before we start going round in circles; that Cooties is a fun, well produced zom-rom-com, but one that just doesn't stand-out with zombies no longer on their own able carry a disjointed narrative and vacuous characters.
I've accused many a film before of not really being about the zombies; that they're more the driver to tell a tense character driven story. Here the film bets all on them and it nearly pays off, with the snarly ferocious little shits, especially young Cooper Roth as Patriot, pulling off a younger utterly convincing and terrifying version of Donald (Robert Carlyle from 28 Days Later), genuinely stealing the show. It's a virus that's mutated from some rotten chicken and jumped species; it's incredibly virulent, transferring through the slightest scratch or bite and it's incredible keen, almost immediately killing off parts of the brain turning the subject into a single-minded rabid cannibal. Despite being children, Milott and Murnion aren't scared to have the teachers deal with their foe with extreme prejudice; and guts, gore and combat are always in your face and imaginative. For all that the film is comedy, there are times, especially in the latter phases that the action is darker and more serious and with the children impeccably made up to look and behave terrifying it made for some genuine uncomfortable viewing; which was a delight. Unfortunately they're sporadic and randomly placed, again pointing to a production that seems haphazard and confused.
If I sat down to watch just one zom-rom-com this year, and this was it, then I'd perhaps feel differently. Then, the riotous interplay of ridiculous characters, set-ups and jokes all brought together in a maelstrom of silly action, inappropriate violence and gore, and teen level romance; by recognisable actors in a more than competent way, all with fantastic zombies would have me jumping for joy, and I'd be inclined to overlook its many short-comings. The thing is, it isn't and the zombies alone, this time, can't forgive it's failings. An almost film, that for all it entertains and titillates, ultimately disappoints - 6/10.