When tainted chicken flesh is processed into nuggets and shipped off to schools across the country, unsuspecting school children are exposed to a virus that turns them into savage, flesh-eating ghouls that may or may not be zombies. Now a dwindling group of teachers will have to work together if they want to survive their worst nightmare come to life…in Cooties.


“Teachers surviving a grade-school zombie apocalypse” is not only the premise to Cooties, but also the full extent of any original thought or humor to be found in this disappointing comedy-horror offering from the first-time directing pair of Jonathan Milott and Cary Murnion.

A director’s job is to take everything given to them–the cast and crew, the script, the budget–and make as creative and entertaining a movie as possible. But sometimes the odds are stacked against directors. It can be difficult to pull a decent performance out of a questionable cast of actors, even if the material in a script might be pure gold. Making something viable from a combination of a bad script and an equally bad cast is an almost impossible task unless a director can pull a bit of magic out of a hat.

Now to be clear: the cast is comprised of more-than passable talent, though most of the heavy-lifting is done by Elijah Wood‘s boyish charm. But the movie does suffer for its characters being little more than one or two token traits away from being utterly vapid. And this issue really speaks to the movie as a whole. Because while the cast and characters don’t necessarily click and mesh well on screen, every scene in Cooties does feel like its bubbling with possibilities and opportunities that are simply never capitalized on. It isn’t a terrible movie by any means, but it does fall short of “good” in almost every way possible.


And the reason for all this seems to be how, between the two of them, Milott and Murnion apparently have four ears that are completely and utterly tone deaf.

The jokes in Cooties, as infrequent as they are, are indeed present. The movie very much has enough scenes that should be funny. But it all falls flat time and time again. It’s almost as if the pair of directors settled on the first or second take of every delivery rather than forcing–or maybe not even allowing–their cast to explore the material, or adjusting the material themselves to properly suit the unique traits of their actors.

And one glaring, omni-present issue that stems from this are numerous shots and entire scenes filled with lingering dead air. This not only puts a spotlight on the movie’s pacing issues, but also fails to cover up for the lack of either speed or wit in what are clearly intended to be quick-witted deliveries. Now deadpan humor is perfectly fine, but not if the entire adult cast comes across as zombified as their undead antagonists. Both Elijah Wood and Rainn Wilson have both more than proved themselves to be funny in their own right, and in projects known for their dry wit. And yet I was left feeling like I’d just watched these two phone it in for an hour-and-a-half. I was left feeling like everyone in the movie was just as bored as I was.

And in addition to jokes that frequently fail to land, the scares and gore are surprisingly lacking. This is an R-rated movie about flesh-eating children that attack and kill everyone in their path. It’s also a dark comedy, yes. But just as how the movie is lacking in laughs, it’s also a surprisingly clean affair.

There are, to my memory, only two moments in the entire movie where Milott and Murnion made good use of their special-effects budget. One of these is a callback to a particularly memorable death scene from George A. Romero‘s Day of the Dead, with a man being violently disemboweled by a group of children. However, this shot is brief and lacking any sort of build-up, tension, or even blood. Had I blinked or sneezed, I’d have missed it entirely.

Now in all fairness, not every zombie movie–not every horror movie–with an R rating necessarily has to be filled with blood, gore, or sex. Edgar Wright’s Shaun of the Dead wasn’t the most violent or bloodiest R-rated horror-comedy or or zombie movie either. It certainly had nothing in the way of sex appeal. But even so, it never felt like it was somehow lacking in quite the way Cooties does. Shaun of the Dead was only ten minutes longer but gave us a love story, a late-bloomer coming-of-age, a constant stream of clever jokes and gags, and a quick-paced story with several memorable scenes of funny and exciting zombie action. Cooties, meanwhile, feels like it’s running out the clock more often than not. It simply has little to say or do. And it has even less to add to the conversation.


Perhaps Cooties is an example of choosing the wrong directors for the wrong project. Or maybe its choosing a cast that wasn’t capable of bringing out the humor in the material in line with the directors’ combined vision. Perhaps if this movie featured Judd Apatow’s or Adam McKay’s stable of comedians, it might have been the spiritual hit follow-up to This is the End. Or maybe comedy-horror movies featuring zombies should be best left to British filmmakers. I’m not sure.

But what I am sure of is that I had high hopes for Cooties and was left disappointed by both ends of the comedy-horror equation. I didn’t laugh, nor did I get my expected horror fix. I was simply left wanting. And somehow that feels far worse than if this movie had been outright bad from top to bottom. Because I want to like Cooties. I want to recommend it. But the movie is intent on not letting me do either. And because of that, it gets a NO CHILL.

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