A new cult classic was born on Sunday evening at the Sundance Film Festival and it involves kindergarteners, undead horrors, and a surprising amount of ukulele music. Australian director Abe Forsythe’s zom-com Little Monsters is a riotously fun, wickedly raunchy, and surprisingly heartfelt midnight movie that will have you laughing your way to six-pack abs. After the slow, shambling reign of The Walking Dead, it’s easy to feel existentially exhausted by the zombie genre, but Little Monsters is a breath of fresh, bloody air that stands proudly alongside horror-comedy classics like Shaun of the Dead and Zombieland.
After a particularly brutal breakup (which takes place over the film’s delightful opening credit sequence), Aussie slacker Dave (Alexander England), frontman of long-defunct death metal band God’s Sledgehammer, winds up crashing on his sister’s couch. While he prefers to spend his days playing zombie shooter Left 4 Dead II and watching VR porn, Dave soon finds a reason to pry himself from the couch: to chaperone his five-year-old nephew Felix’s (the endearing Disel La Torraca) kindergarten field trip to Pleasant Valley Farm, a petting zoo/mini-golf course, in a misguided effort to impress the teacher, Miss Caroline (Lupita Nyong’o).
What follows is an unexpected encounter with manic children’s TV host Teddy McGiggle (a gleefully unhinged Josh Gad) and an even more unexpected outbreak of lumbering, flesh-eating monsters that escaped from a nearby American military base. Together, this unlikely trio of adults must protect their fledgling flock from harm and escape Pleasant Valley Farm before it is decimated by a military incursion. If that sounds like a tried-and-true formula, that’s because it is. Little Monsters doesn’t reinvent the wheel when it comes to the zombie genre, but its mixture of gore, gallows humor, and outsized charm makes it an undeniable pleasure to watch.
As it turns out, the one thing that the zombie genre needed to feel fresh again was Lupita Nyong’o playing Taylor Swift’s “Shake It Off” on a ukulele. Okay, maybe not the only thing, but Nyong’o’s relentlessly charming performance and rock-solid comedic chops go a long way towards elevating the material. Nyong’o shines as Miss Caroline, a teacher who will go to incredible lengths to protect her young wards, giving the role her utmost whether she is decapitating zombies with a shovel or convincing her students that they’re involved in an elaborate game of tag rather than facing their imminent demise. If nothing else, Little Monsters is a testament to the fact that Nyong’o is a force of a nature who should absolutely be in more comedies.
Josh Gad also shines as Teddy McGiggle, a bubbly and over-the-top TV host whose off-screen persona is akin to Krusty the Clown. A lecherous, self-centered alcoholic who is only concerned with his own well-being, McGiggle makes for a perfect foil to Dave, who is a bit of a scumbag in his own right. Wildly inappropriate, foul-mouthed, and often mean-spirited, Dave is a man in emotional freefall, and sometimes you’ll wonder why you’re supposed to be rooting for him. Alexander England’s performance is top-notch and so infectiously charismatic that in spite of his continually advised attempts at courting Miss Caroline, you can’t help but smile and shake your head. He isn't all bad, though; Dave's emotional arc over the course of the movie is both schmaltzy and heartwarming in the best way possible. With his deadpan humor and good looks, England feels like an apocryphal Hemsworth brother, and if he doesn't become a massive star then I'll be even more disappointed than when I saw 2007's The Golden Compass. Which is to say "very."
Those expecting particularly inventive zombie kills, intense levels of gore, or even seriously impressive zombie makeup may leave Little Monsters feeling disappointed. The film places much more of an emphasis on comedy than horror and mines the genre to terrific effect. At one point, one of the character's even makes a crack about how the zombies don't look realistic—it's a relatively minor complaint about what is otherwise a tremendously enjoyable movie. That said, there are still some standout moments for gorehounds, like seeing the aftermath of an all-you-can-eat porcupine buffet and what happens when undead hordes encounter a squadron of soldiers equipped with fully automatic weapons.
Thankfully, Little Monsters has been acquired for distribution by NEON and Hulu, so there’s a good chance that you will get to experience the film in all of its bloody, bawdy glory later this year. And when that release date finally comes out, mark it on your calendars at your earliest possible convenience. Trust me—you'll thank me later.
Rating: 4.5 out of 5
Images: Sundance Institute