While zombie movies have fallen out of favor, with the resurgence in interest from a few years back having clearly died down, a new one manages to make its way to screens every so often. After all, as tired as we all got of hordes of undead ghouls back in the late 2000s and early 2010s, you can’t keep a good monster down. The latest film to keep the genre alive is Little Monsters, an Australian zombie comedy most notable for having Oscar winner Lupita Nyong’o among the principle cast. Nyong’o carries the film in a lot of ways, injecting a lot of much-needed charm to a film that otherwise brings very little — if any — new life to the genre. But more critically, she and her character serve to underscore just how stale a lot of the storytelling and character conventions the film uses have become.
Alexander England stars as Dave, the prototypical slacker dude who finds himself living with his sister and nephew after a breakup. After taking his nephew to school, Dave meets his kindergarten teacher, Miss Caroline (played by Nyong’o), and immediately sets out to win her affection — or at least a night in her bed. To this end, he comes along for a trip to the local petting zoo. The zoo, meanwhile, is right next to an American military base where a zombie outbreak has just occurred, sending a horde of flesh-eaters into the park. Holed up with Miss Caroline, the children, and a foul-mouthed children’s TV personality, Dave is forced to step up for once in his life to save the day.
Those familiar with Shaun of the Dead in particular will find a lot of familiar beats in Little Monsters, with a similarly shiftless protagonist going through a similar story of growth and self-actualization. This is fine, but it’s absolutely nothing new. Dave is a character we’ve all seen and probably know: lazy, dim, self-centered and coasting on his former life in a band. He’s a trope on legs, and not a particularly interesting or well-rounded one at that. Things get far more interesting when Miss Caroline enters the picture. She’s smart, determined, and damn good at her job, often charging headlong into danger to protect her wee charges. It becomes evident fairly early on that she should have been the main character rather than Dave. After all, we’ve all seen countless movies about slackerish 20-something dudes being forced to step up to the plate in a crisis situation. But an overworked, underappreciated kindergarten teacher leading a literal conga-line of kids through a field of zombies? One with an interesting backstory and heaps of agency to boot? Now that’s interesting. It’s just a shame that the film keeps trying to be about someone else a lot of the time.
This unfortunate instance of misplaced focus is really the one thing holding Little Monsters back from greatness. England does a fine job in the role, and there’s nothing all that wrong with Dave as a character; it’s just an archetype we’ve seen dozens of times before, and often with much more nuance. The slacker with a heart of gold, the guy coasting through life who could start thriving if he harnessed all that untapped potential, is definitively played out.
While its focus may be entirely misplaced, there are still a lot of laughs to be had. The film’s humor is incredibly low-brow at times, especially when Josh Gad is onscreen in a polka dot suit yelling about the number of moms he’s slept with. If puerile humor isn’t your thing, this movie won’t have much for you, but there’s a time and place for low-brow jokes, after all. Horror fans will also find a lot to love, with some excellent and creative gore effects on display once the blood starts flying. A zombie outbreak in a petting zoo may not sound like the most exciting thing ever, but Little Monsters does get a few decent gags out of the premise.
Director Abe Forsythe obviously has a lot of love for zombie movies and zombie comedies in particular, and while that love does make Little Monsters a fun watch, the critical decision to base the movie around a character we’ve all seen before hamstrings the experience. There’s a much, much more interesting and original story lurking under the surface here — one that isn’t based on a stale trope. If you try and look past that missed opportunity and enjoy Little Monsters for what it is rather than what it could be, there’s fun to be had. But it could have been so much better, and that can make for a frustrating experience.