From her break-out performance in 12 Years a Slave, Lupita Nyong’o hasn’t found much time to let loose with genre fun in her admittedly still-young career. However, this year should change that with the forthcoming Us and, premiering in Sundance’s Midnight section, the zombie comedy Little Monsters. Australia’s answer to Shaun of the Dead, writer-director Abe Forsythe doesn’t quite have the wit or visual inventiveness of Edgar Wright, but the raunchy punches he throws pack an entertaining-enough bite.
Before we get to sweet-natured, zombie-killing charms of Nyong’o, the lead of the film is actually Dave (Alexander England), once a C-list musician who is now a no-list loser. Having not been in a band in six years, he lives at his sister’s house and is “taking care” of his nephew as he exposes him to a flurry of f-bombs and, in an obvious bit of foreshadowing, violent zombie VR games. When a marriage proposal goes horribly wrong with his estranged ex-girlfriend, Dave finds himself taken with his nephew’s kindergarten teacher, Miss Caroline (Nyong’o). As Dave searches for a way to swoon her, the ideal opportunity comes when a chaperone for their trip to a nearby animal farm has to back out.
We soon find out that 600 feet away from their excursion is an American military base that has just been overrun with a zombie outbreak and hordes of the undead are now closing in the school children. Despite the gore and blood spewing about and vulgarities being thrown around, Little Monsters has a fairly warm-hearted center. Caroline’s only mission is to safeguard her students and to make sure they believe all this chaos is just a game. This includes pretending it’s not blood, but just strawberry jam splattered on her bright yellow dress and having them recite children’s song to placate their fears as they walk through dangerous territory.
This becomes more difficult when Teddy McGiggle (Josh Gad) enters the picture. A television star for the kiddie demographic (think Steve from Blue’s Clues meets Pee-wee Herman, but far more grating), he’s filming an episode at the locale. His antics and particularly a special dance is known by all the trapped kindergarteners, but he has a secret: he hates his job. With Gad’s Disney connections, it’s a subversive, scene-stealing bit of casting. Having been trained by the likes of Pacino, Teddy is down in a hole of depression as he exploits his career by having sex with thousands of single moms. He also has no qualms with his proclivity for profanity when trapped with his adoring five-year-old fans, at least until Caroline vigorously speaks her mind. This noble, motherly sense of protection embodied by a determined Nyong’o gives the otherwise silly film a beating heart. Forsythe also has some fun with playing on the title as the pack mentality of the tired and hungry kindergartners is not too far off from the zombies outside their door.
Never truly scary or side-splitting hilarious (aside from one of the single greatest visual jokes I’ve seen in a long while, involving a kindergarten class picture), Little Monsters can often feel toothless in its bite, ending up being a watchable, if watered-down zombie comedy. With only a few moments of action, Forsythe is more keen on seeing the dynamics of his characters play out, particularly in providing a too-obvious arc of redemption for Dave as confronts his own selfishness. With that said, the sight of Lupita Nyong’o singing Shake It Off while playing a ukelele or chopping off zombie heads with a shovel is more than worth the price of admission.
Little Monsters premiered at the Sundance Film Festival and hits Hulu on October 11.
Follow our festival coverage here.