Sundance Review: Little Monsters – Petting Zoo of the Dead

There have been many zombie comedies from Return of the Living Dead to Shaun of the Dead and Cooties. I get the appeal. You get to have fun with outrageous situations and lots of gore, and Little Monsters puts a fun twist on it.

David (Alexander England) is a stoner loser whose girlfriend (Nadia Townsend) dumps him so he moves in with his sister. He takes his nephew Felix (Diesel La Torraca) on inappropriate late night adventure but volunteers for a class field trip to impress his teacher Audrey (Lupita Nyong’o). When they get to the petting zoo, a zombie outbreak at the next door army base descends upon the zoo, so Audrey and David have to barricade the kids inside the gift shop, stuck with children’s show host Teddy McGiggles (Josh Gad).

The hook that most people are going to hang on is all the violence and swearing involving children. That’s kinda obvious and there is a lot more cleverness that pays off by the end.

Audrey has to use her kindergarten tricks to wrangle kids to safety without letting them see the gory danger. Nyong’o is incredible with the kids and later, when she leaves to bring back medical supplies, she becomes a magnificent badass fighting zombies. Her classroom songs have a really cool payoff with the zombies at the end.

In a crisis McGiggles shows his true colors and Gad relishes his inappropriateness. This too goes deeper as he proves to be not just a coward but a truly awful guy. David is pretty obnoxious at first but you know this is moving towards him stepping up and proving himself. Felix is cute saying childish things in the grownup situations David puts him in.

So “Petting Zoo of the Dead” is a new one for the genre and there are lots of clever gore gags too, no small feat when there are more added to the canon every week on The Walking Dead. Writer/director Abe Forsythe creates suspenseful zombie action while maintaining the absurdity of a kindergarten field trip.

Cooties Exclusive: Leigh Whannell with Q&A Video

Cooties opened in theaters and VOD over the weekend. I moderated a Q&A after a Friday night show at the Arclight Hollywood theater. You can watch the video of the Q&A with Elijah Wood, Leigh Whannell, Ian Brennan, producers and some of the child actors here.

I also got to interview Whannell one on one, because it’s tradition. We’ve spoken for every film he’s written since 2004’s Saw. Cooties is a full on comedy, as tainted chicken nuggets turn all the kids at an elementary school into murderous zombies, and the teachers have to defend themselves. Whannell also stars as sex ed teacher who helps provide some medical context for the outbreak. Cooties is now in theaters and on VOD.

Nerd Report: You didn’t think I’d let you release Cooties without talking to me, did you?

Leigh Whannell: I know, I was waiting. I was looking at my watch and being like, “When is Fred going to call?” It’s a tradition for you to talk to me. That’s awesome, man. Thank you.

Nerd Report: Since I’m Franchise Fred, could Cooties be the start of your third franchise?

Leigh Whannell: I don’t know. I would love it if it was just because I would love to spend more time with that cast. I really, really enjoyed myself. It was like a summer camp, the film. We were all together all the time and it was super funny, but I just don’t know. Cooties was one of those films where I haven’t heard too many expectations. When you come out with Insidious 2 or something or even the first Insidious film, you get all these e-mails about what they’re predicting it will do and this and that. I haven’t seen any of that with Cooties so I’m really curious as to how the film will resonate and how many people will see it.

Nerd Report: Story-wise, the disease could certainly spread to new places.

Leigh Whannell: Oh yeah, for sure. I think if you had to do a sequel, it should just be like Mad Max version of Cooties with little encampments of adults barricaded themselves in, these kids running around the wasteland. It writes itself.

wk-cooties0918-2Nerd Report: Was the tone tricky, being fun and funny while killing kids?

Leigh Whannell: A little bit, but yet when I was acting in the film, I really didn’t worry too much about the trickiness of that tone. I figured I’d just concentrate on the comedy and then the horror would take care of itself. The situation is kind of horrific so I guess you could say if I picked one of the genres, I picked comedy as far as the tone. It actually felt fairly effortless.

Nerd Report: Are you dealing with a certain taboo, “the sacred children?”

Leigh Whannell: Yeah, I think we are. There’ve been horror films featuring children before so it didn’t feel like totally fresh ground in terms of that taboo breaking. We definitely had to keep in mind that kids were our villains, and there are moments in the film that I think are uncomfortable when the adults are defending themselves from the kids. But that’s what we wanted this film to be. We wanted it to be a little bit uncomfortable. We wanted it to be pushing the envelope a little bit. I’m really happy with how it turned out. I’m so grateful that the audiences that have seen it have responded to it.

Nerd Report: Are we seeing your full on comic sensibilities in Cooties?

Leigh Whannell: Yes, definitely, and especially with acting. Yeah, there’s moments of humor in Insidious and Saw but this is the first one where it’s just all out balls out. I loved working with Ian Brennan on the script. He’s such a funny guy and he’s such a great dialogue writer for comedy. Then in the performance I had a lot of fun. I’ve never been able to just act in a straight up comedy before and I just enjoyed it so much. I remember I had a really good year that year because I shot Insidious 2 and then The Mule and then Cooties all back to back and it was so fun.

Nerd Report: Where did the “Quiet please” running joke come from? Was it in the script or something you came up with once you were acting?

Leigh Whannell: That was in the script. A lot of the stuff you see is all in the script. There was a bit of improv’ing here and there. I’d say 90% of the film was all in the script, including tha, “Rebekkah, quiet please.” It’s amazing to see it work in a theater. When you sit down to write something, it’s a pretty amazing experience to witness people laughing at it a year or two later.

Nerd Report: Where did the idea come from that Doug is hearing people talking when they’re not?

Leigh Whannell: We both just wanted Doug to be a strange person. We wanted him to be a guy who wasn’t good at existing in the modern world and just was struggling to communicate with fellow human beings so I think that really came out of us thinking, “What’s the most awkward thing he could say at this point.”

Nerd Report: Do you have somewhat different threats the kids can provide because they’re  small and can fit in different places and do different things?

Leigh Whannell: Yeah, I think so. The great thing about kids is that there’s so much to exploit. When you’re writing the film, you’re constantly looking for something new. What’s the new angle on this thing? So if you’re writing a scene where a zombie walks into the room and tries to rip someone’s head off, you don’t want to write the straight up been there, done that version of that scene. You want to write the unique version of that scene. So when you have little kids as zombies, there’s just so many facets to kids you can exploit. We had scenes with them riding tricycles around after the teachers and attacking them with toys or using their eyeballs to play marbles. We tried to exploit the childlike insanity of the kid zombies. That was one of the most fun parts of the script was coming up with ways that kids would be disgusting.

CTS_007685.CR2Nerd Report: Do the teachers represent a microcosm of the adult world with each of their personalities?

Leigh Whannell: Yeah, definitely. We definitely wanted them to be that symbol of different personalities and not just to do with schools. I’m an Australian who’s been living in the U.S. for 10 years and in some ways I saw Cooties as my comment on America. All that’s great and all that’s scary about it. You’ve got the ultra-conservative character. Just these outsized personalities and the way they relate to each other, they were symbolic in that way. We wanted to make them human as well but I loved that each of the characters represent a facet of middle American culture. Different personalities that I find intruding on public life. If you watch Fox News or whatever 24 hour cable news station, you see these personalities. You can’t believe they’re real. Reality TV is the same. I’ll be watching a reality TV show that’s just a horror show but it’s presented as real life, like, “This is a real family.” I just wanted to tap into the excess of that and the craziness of that with Ian.

Nerd Report: If it makes you feel any better, reality TV is actually coached and at some points scripted, so they are encouraged to act that way. 

Leigh Whannell: I do have a friend who works in reality TV who tells me exactly that. He’s like, “They’ll stop and say, ‘Why don’t you say this?’” It’s basically scripted drama where they don’t have to pay a team of writers.

Nerd Report: So what does Doug represent in the adult world of America?

Leigh Whannell: For me, in the adult world, he symbolizes the guy who just has trouble relating to other adults, the potential serial killer. That’s who he is to me. He’s like Jeffrey Dahmer before he started killing. I even wanted the Jeffrey Dahmer haircut, somebody who you think is just awkwardly innocent but actually is keeping everybody’s skull in his freezer.

Nerd Report: It doesn’t seem to bother Doug though. He seems pretty comfortable.

Leigh Whannell: Yeah, I think he wants to fit in with other people but I really do feel like deep down inside, there’s a serial killer lurking that could come out at any time. Which certainly made it interesting to play to think of him in that way. He’s a guy who’s allowed to teach at an elementary school even though he doesn’t have basic communication skills. I just had fun with that. When you’re playing a character like that that doesn’t play by the rules in terms of social interaction, you’ve just got carte blanche to be as weird and as stupid as you want, which suits me fine. I loved playing that.

Nerd Report: Are you still writing a role for yourself in every script, or could Cooties be the last one?

Leigh Whannell: I don’t know. It really depends on the script. With the Insidious films, it’s a given that Specs and Tucker will turn up, but I don’t think so. Especially now that I’ve directed, I think that I would love to direct a film that I didn’t act in. I’d love to put all my eggs in the directing basket and just really concentrate on it because I had so much fun directing Insidious 3. I just really want to do it again.

file_608157_cooties-movie-trailerNerd Report: I always tell you what I love about your films isn’t the horror, it’s the morality of Saw and the spirituality of Insidious. So did Cooties allow you to explore some new themes?

Leigh Whannell: Both horror and comedy allow you to address political themes and subtext stuff in a really great way, more so than other genres. So when you combine the two, you’re having double the fun. With Cooties, I loved being able to talk about school lunches and how disgusting they are and how badly teachers are treated in schools and how crazy kids are today. They’re eating Ritalin and Prozac and all these adult drugs and they’re staring at their phones all day. The world is changing and so I loved commenting on all that stuff in the film.

Nerd Report: What’s up next for you?

Leigh Whannell: I really don’t know. I wish I knew the answer to that question. I feel like I had all these scripts floating around in the ether and they suddenly all got made at once. So now I’ve go nothing left. I need to create it from scratch. I am working on a sci-fi movie that I’ve been working on for a couple years. Maybe if that gets made, I’ll direct it.

Nerd Report: You’ve always told me you had other scripts that weren’t horror. Were Cooties and The Mule the comedy and the drama?

Leigh Whannell: Yeah, that was The Mule and Cooties and this sci-fi movie. There’s actually one film that I don’t know if it will ever get made, a kids movie. It was optioned by a company that makes animated films and that fell through. I’ve always wanted to see that come to life. That’s the one film I’ve got that I wish would happen one day.

Nerd Report: I’d love to see the Leigh Whannell kids movie. 

Leigh Whannell: If nobody will make it as a film, I want to write it as a book. I’ll do that just to see it come to life in some form. It doesn’t necessarily have to be a film. It’s a story, so stories take many forms and I don’t mind if it’s a book.

Nerd Report: Has Jason Blum asked you for Insidious 4?

Leigh Whannell: He’s just started talking about it so we’ll have to see. I’m suspecting that you’ll probably hear something about that soon. I’m assuming that Jason’s very interested in doing an Insidious 4.

Nerd Report: Every once in a while we hear about either a Saw VIII or a Saw reboot. Whichever form it takes, would you be involved somehow?

Leigh Whannell: I don’t know. I’m sure they would want me to be involved. I just don’t know that I would want to. I think that I had to say goodbye to that. I love the Saw franchise. I’m so grateful to it. The first Saw movie is still one of the most special times of my life, making it and seeing it get released. I think it’s the end of an era. I don’t think I’ve got anything more to contribute to the Saw universe. It’d be much better if someone else that was a fan took up the mantle and went on with it, but who knows? If Lionsgate called me tomorrow and pitched me a great story idea that blew my mind, I might be like, “You know what? I’ll get involved.” It’s all just hypothetical at the moment.

Nerd Report: Did you ever have a chance to meet Wes Craven when you got into Hollywood 10 years ago?

Leigh Whannell: I actually met him in Australia. Years ago I was working on a television show in Australia as a film reviewer. I would interview people that came to town and I got to interview Wes Craven. He was so nice and so gracious. He’s got this very professorial air to him. Just because he makes horror films doesn’t mean he’s jumping up and down in a dog collar and a black Evil Dead T-shirt talking about how much he loves on screen kills. He was a very dignified restrained guy who loves talking about what horror actually means, the subtext of it and the themes of it. I so enjoyed meeting him. He had just made Scream. He was a hero of mine so I was really sad to hear of his passing. I went to a dinner the other night to celebrate his life with a lot of other horror directors. There were so many people whose films I grew up watching at this dinner, everyone from Stuart Gordon to Don Coscarelli to new directors like Ti West.

Nerd Report: Can we see that interview you did online? Does it still exist?

Leigh Whannell: You know, I don’t know. YouTube is the magical gatekeeper to so many of these videos. Maybe Google “Leigh Whannell Wes Craven interview” and see if anything pops up. I do remember I interviewed him at a cafe in Melbourne that was horror themed. I actually think it might’ve been called The Horror Cafe. You would walk in and there was a skeleton above the bar that would, every hour on the hour, put on a little show. It was all dark in there and there were crystal balls and vampire stuff and coffins. I interviewed him upstairs in this library that was a scary library. It was such a fun place, I wish that that place had never shut down and I’m very mad about it.