Sometimes the best film experiences are the ones you expect nothing from. Having received a rather mixed reaction at the Melbourne International Film Festival, production being split across three major countries including Australia, and having the historically hard job of balancing horror and comedy, ‘Little Monsters’ appeared to have the odds stacked against it. Instead, the result is a super-fun romp that not only is the best zombie comedy of the year (and there's been a few), but belongs in a midnight monster movie marathon with the memorable likes of ‘Shaun of the Dead’ and ‘Tucker and Dale vs Evil’.
Dave (Alexander England, ‘Alien: Covenant’) is a deadbeat boyfriend, brother and uncle, riding on the coattails of a very dead dream to make it in the music industry. After a spate of rocky arguments with his unloyal girlfriend (Nadia Townsend, ‘Mad Max: Fury Road’), Dave finds himself on his sister’s couch (Kat Stewart, TV’s ‘Offspring’) and chaperoning his adorable nephew Felix (Diesel La Torraca, TV’s ‘Lambs of God’) to school, where he meets the infectious Miss Caroline (Lupita Nyong'o, ‘Us’). Determined to prove himself as more than a slacker (and also wanting to spend more time with Miss Caroline), Dave volunteers to supervise Felix’s class trip to Pleasant Valley Farm. Unbeknownst to Dave, Miss Caroline and her class, however, is that the neighbouring U.S. army testing facility has had a massive security breach that will soon leave the class trapped in the farm’s souvenir shop with kid entertainer and narcissist extraordinaire Teddy McGiggle (Josh Gad, ‘Frozen’), surrounded by hungry zombies.
What ‘Little Monsters’ manages to do incredibly well is explore the idea of lost dreams in its three adult leads; what it looks like when you achieve your dream, what happens when you don’t, and what happens when you happen to fall into it by accident. The fact that this film is a horror comedy (the comedy is very straightforward and silly at times) and not a pure horror should indicate how tangential the zombies are to the central ideas of the film; instead, they act as catalysts for change within the three leads and are not the focus of the film. This film is going for smiles and laughs, not for screams. In fact, much of ‘Little Monsters’ acts like a red herring; the promotional material is only really indicative of the second act, and as a result allows the film to hide pleasant little surprises throughout. It is also to the film's extreme credit that it manages to channel Josh Gad’s hard-to-digest-at-best energy and make him... likeable (it’s worth noting his character is not painted as a sympathetic figure, but as the run time unfolds, he comes more than just an asshole who is easy to laugh at)?
This is arguably Lupita Nyong'o's best performance since her Oscar-winning turn in ‘12 Years A Slave’.
While she may not be the film’s lead, there is no shadow of a doubt that this film belongs to Nyong'o. She sports a personality as bright as the yellow sundress she spends most of the film wearing, and her desperation to keep her class safe gives way to some of the funniest and most brutal moments in the film. Even when Miss Caroline’s arc shifts into the cliché (the more cynical cinemagoer will find themselves rolling their eyes at some plot beats), these moments are a welcome departure from the first 45 minutes which position her solely as an object of desire, not only for Dave but for parents of her students. It’s the mark of a great performance that Nyong'o can go from performing Taylor Swift’s 'Shake It Off' on a ukulele to using a shovel to behead zombies within the space of half an hour (a reprise of the song gloriously cuts away at a relevant lyric to a moment of extreme zombie violence), all without making it feel jarring; this is arguably her best performance since her Oscar-winning turn in ‘12 Years A Slave’ (yes, even better than her double role in this year’s ‘Us’).
If you’re looking for a zombie film with a little more meat on the bone, look elsewhere; however, if you’re after a heartwarming 94 minutes that just so happens to involve zombie decapitation, ‘Little Monsters’ is for you. Best of luck getting 'Shake It Off' out of your head any time soon.