It turns out, in case you’re wondering, that being caught up in the middle of a fast moving outbreak of slow zombies, is a pretty good way to work through some deep-seated childhood issues.
Not that has-been musician Dave (Alexander England) thinks so when an impulsive decision, guided less by altruism than lust, sees him volunteering to chaperone a school excursion for his nephew Felix’s (Diesel La Torraca) kindergarten class to the happily-named Pleasant Valley Farm (now with putt-putt golf!).
When he makes that spur of the moment decision, flamboyant guitar slung across his shoulder in an attempt to establish his rock god credentials, all Dave, newly broken from his girlfriend because of some major commitment issues on his part, wants is to get his nephew’s teacher, the effervescently lovely Miss Caroline (Lupita Nyong’o) into bed with him.
If that means shepherding some kindergarteners through lamb-petting and putt-putt golfing while pretending to also be a committed Christian (oh, the lies flow easily for love-hungry Dave!) then so be it.
Of course, being a zombie comedy, life for Dave in the Abe Forsythe-written and directed Little Monsters is never going to be that simple.
Especially not when the manufactured rural idyll of Pleasant Valley Farm sits cheek-by-unfortunate-jowl to a US military testing facility where some rather weird undead experiments are taking place (the latest in a long line of global experiments if an exchange between two soldiers is any guide with one asking whether the zombies are the slow ones or the fast ones; no prizes for guessing which they prefer).
The reality is that Dave has problems, and even if their lovely trip to a faux country tourist experience hadn’t gone to the undead which it most hilariously, and surprisingly touchingly does, failed-at-life Dave was never going to have a shot with consummately in charge of things Miss Caroline (“Please call me Audrey!”).
For Dave has emotional baggage, Louis Vuitton stores worth of emotional baggage, stemming from a childhood of father abandonment and his mother’s subsequent mental breakdown, and Dave is famously unable to “adult” sufficiently to impress anyone for long, including big sister Tess (Kat Stewart) and mother of Felix who loves him but is finding Dave’s propensity for poor life choices to be an increasingly difficult thing to navigate.
There’s a lot going on an emotional level in Little Monsters, which premiered at Sundance in January 2019, which makes what could have been a slight, will-o-the-wisp trip into the funny side of the zombie apocalypse – it exists and you will laugh and not just because of the leering, slow-moving zombies who have significant ambulatory issues – into something quite extraordinarily affecting.
Much of the film’s instant and enduring appeal comes down to some very clever writing which takes the tropes of the apocalypse and makes deliciously flesh-eating merry with them.
We have the secretive military, the unsuspecting innocents, in this case fellow tourists at Pleasant Valley Farm who only have eyes for super-famous globally-recognised children’s entertainer Teddy McGiggle aka Nathan Schneider – played by Josh Gad, he is one of the highlights of the film, a foul-mouthed, utterly self centred sex addict and alcoholic who only cares about saving himself; the gap between public and private personas here is glorious, hilariously massive – and the kids in peril who surely have no chance against the marauding monsters surrounding them?
Ah, but there you’d be wrong for they have Miss Caroline, played with straight sincerity by Nyong’o in dazzlingly perfect song-always-at-the-ready form, and as it turns out Dave who steps up when it really matters, and if nothing else Felix and Tess matter to him, abd helps save the day.
What stamps out Little Monsters as something special is that some things you expect to happen simply don’t, or do so with a delightfully irreverent twist.
Take Teddy who gives every impression, rather reluctantly, that he might see the error of his ways and become a better person away from the camera’s cheerful glare – SPOILER ALERT – but he consistently does not and what we get is the perfect comparison between Dave dealing with his shit and McGiggles manifestly failing to do so.
It adds some powerful emotional resonance to a film already swimming in great heart-affecting pools of it but also means that Little Monsters is one of those zombie comedies is actually far more entertainingly substantial than you might be expecting.
Far more than an inspired collection of sight gags and witty socially-observant oneliners, though to be fair these are all done brilliantly and hand-clappingly well, Little Monsters never forgets for one bloodthirsty second that the heart of every undead tale is not re-animated corpses and the battle to defeat them but the people doing their best to survive the apparent end of the world.
Dave and Audrey and the gorgeous kids they put their lives on the line to protect in what the head of the US military later tells parents is an unprecedented story of survival – this is not a spoiler; did you honestly expect Forsythe to sacrifice a bunch of adorable kindergartners to a bunch of flesh-hungry nightmares on two unsteady feet? – are the beating heart of a film which is fantastically, deeply impressively funny but never loses sight of what keeps us engaged throughout.
We want these kids to survive, and in amongst the glorious silliness of zombified US military personnel and vapid tourists wandering around a tourist trap, the soul of which was clearly long gone anyway such is its nakedly capitalist intent to part innocents (or their parents) from their money – the setting is supremely clever, a joy in a movie that is full of inspired, well thought-out moments – we remain invested in seeing Dave and Audrey make that happen in ways that was funny, touching and yes, downright tense.
And honestly, if the final scene on the farm doesn’t move your calcified hearts to beating, surging feeling, then you are deader than the zombies surrounding the souvenir store in which the kids, Dave, Audrey and Teddy precariously shelter during a very long day and night.
Little Monsters is gem, one of those films that takes all kinds of well-worn tropes and jokes and use them to devastatingly good dramatic and comedic effect, delivering to its never less than fully invested audience, an experience that is roaringly funny, smiling-inducing inspired parodic, heartfelt wonderful and winningly, groundedly romantic as it makes the firm case that while no one wants to be in the middle of the zombie apocalypse, it might just be the best thing to ever happen to you (especially if you can remember on which side of pedals the clutch resides).