The first trailer of Little Monsters presented a horror comedy that looked like it spoke the same language as Shaun of the Dead (2004). It was witty, had gruesome zombie makeup on display, and presented easy to love characters in a scenario that was almost tailor made for comedy (a zoo with a mini golf course on the side). I was ready for all of that and thought I would find more than a fair share of callbacks and nods to the Edgar Wright-directed film to in terms of style. What I got instead was a movie that took from one of Shaun of the Dead’s most underrated story elements: it’s heart. And it made for a great movie because of it.
The movie starts off with Dave (Alexander England), a failed musician that has disappointment written all over him, splitting up with his girlfriend. This leads him to stay with his sister and her son as he tries to put something worth living for together. Deceptively, he thinks his nephew’s teacher Miss Caroline, played by Lupita Nyong’o, is that something that’ll bring him back on his feet. Dave volunteers for a school trip to a zoo/mini golf park to see a kids’ show celebrity, played by a very obscene but funny Josh Gad, when zombies invade the zoo and everything starts going horribly wrong.
One of the first surprises Little Monsters threw my way was its handling of the zombie outbreak. For starters, it wasn’t apocalyptic. The whole world wasn’t being overrun by the undead. It was all contained in the zoo. There was the possibility of escape, and with it, a chance at a happy ending (which is not confirm whether we get one or not).
This changed things up a bit. Suddenly the stakes were different. Miss Caroline went into survivor mode the minute she fought her first zombie and her mission became that of not only protecting her students but also making them feel everything’s just a game. For any teachers out there, myself included, Miss Caroline’s reaction to the whole thing is spot on and precisely what we tend to go for when something goes wrong in a trip. Kid safety first, making them believe things are alright second. In my case, I could immediately relate to the character and it gave the movie a different feel to that of other zombie movies.
Even if you’re not a teacher, the situation is just refreshingly different. It’s not just about survival—as is the case with The Walking Dead—or about politics and failed humanity, as is the case with the George Romero zombie films (and also TWD to be honest). It’s about a teacher taking care of her students. This alone made the movie feel unique.
This is where the movie finds its heart. The students’ presence in the movie make for a lighter and, quite frankly, adorable tone. It’s not a depressing movie in the slightest and the storytelling decisions made you root for its heroes. Thankfully, the lighter tone didn’t sacrifice any of the tension or its horror.
We get zombie violence, gore, and buckets of blood, but what drives the horror here is the kids’ safety. Whenever a kid is in danger the movie focuses on generating this panicky sensation that speeds up action sequences. Those sequences made me anxious to see whichever kid was in danger brought back to safety and were very effective in adding urgency to those sequences.
As to be expected, Lupita Nyong’o’s performance is what makes the movie work. She’s believable as a teacher turned zombie killer and her interactions with the other characters are always interesting. Josh Gad as the foul-mouthed celebrity gives the situation a well placed kicked in the most sensitive areas of the story and is a good counterpoint to Nyong’o. He’s also very different to the rest of the characters and stands out as the obnoxious guy in the room. But there’s also flashes of a regretful man that wasn’t built for this kind of stuff. Gad goes beyond the call of duty to give us a very nuanced performance in parts, knowing when to crank up the volume when F-bombs are needed.
The movie does start slow, though. A bit uninteresting, even. Dave’s character is not particularly compelling early on and tends to tread over previously exhausted themes and ideas. But once the zombies come out and the situation forces him to see things differently, we get a more interesting and complex character. In another negative, Gad’s character felt absent at times, as if he’s gone to sleep or something off-screen and is not a factor in certain moments. This is more a screenplay problem, but I found myself wondering where he was during some of the film’s longer sequences.
The movie plays around with some new zombie ideas, especially nearing the end, but it cuts them short too quickly. I would’ve liked if they were explored earlier to give them time to mature. There’s a bit about zombie behavior that was very interesting near the end but it barely got the chance to breathe. There were some good ideas here, but they were painfully cut short before they had the chance to become something special.
Little Monsters was a pleasant surprise. It was sweet, fun, and tension-filled. That’s not something you commonly hear with zombie movies. And it earns it. It doesn’t quite match the emotional highs of Shaun of the Dead, but it makes its own. This alone makes it easy to recommend. It’s about time we got another zombie movie with a bit more optimism in it.