Ever since George A. Romero began the modern zombie movie with Night of the Living Dead (1968), the sub-genre morphed into many varieties. Edgar Wright’s Shaun of the Dead (2004) revived zombies with modern comedy and pop culture references, which paved the way for Pride & Prejudice & Zombies (2016) and Scouts Guide to the Zombie Apocalypse (2015). It now seems like the ‘zom-com’ genre has already been done to death.
Independent filmmaker Abe Forsythe debuted with his critically acclaimed and controversial black-comedy Down Under (2016). Once again the Australian writer-director digs deep to find dry humour and bad taste with his follow-up Little Monsters. While remaining faithful to his dark roots, he’s backed by the production team that produced Jonathan Levin’s underrated romantic comedy Warm Bodies (2013) and cult chiller The Guest (2014). Forsythe sticks to his indie sensibilities with a refreshing new take on the zom-com sub-genre. Premiering at 2019’s Sundance Film Festival and London Film Festival, Little Monsters generated a buzz in the festival circuit, picking up both Official Selection Awards at SFF and SXSW.
Dave (Alexander England) is a washed-up musician whose life’s going nowhere. Unemployed and separated from his girlfriend, he finds himself living with his sister Tess (Kat Stewart) and her son Felix (Diesel La Torraca). After taking Felix to kindergarten, Dave meets his nephew’s teacher Miss Caroline (Lupita Nyong’o). Immediately infatuated, he volunteers to chaperone the class on a school trip to the petting zoo Pleasant Valley Farm. Not long after they arrive, an accident at a local US Army base unleashes a horde of flesh-eating zombies…. resulting in Dave, Miss Caroline, and an obnoxious children’s entertainer called Teddy McGiggles (Josh Gad) to protect the class.
The performances are nothing short of fantastic. The yellow sundress wearing Lupita Nyong’o (12 Years a Slave) is a beaming ray of sunshine as ukulele-playing ultra-sweet kindergarten teacher Miss Caroline. Her sunshine-and-lollipops characterisation is endlessly cheerful and instantly likeable. The actress has become a notable presence in horror after Jordan Peele’s Us (2019), and here shows a knack for action and comic timing. In a crucial scene, she single-handedly fights her way through a horde of zombies, retrieves some medication, and makes her way back to her class…. and with a blood-stained yellow dress, she explains to the kids “it’s strawberry jam,” while flicking bits of brains from her hair. It’s admirable how Miss Caroline contains her emotions and restlessly wants to protect the children from danger.
The true heart of the picture is Alexander England’s (Alien: Covenant) character of Dave. We’re introduced to this crude, emotionally inept, petulant man during a shouting match between him and his soon-to-be ex-girlfriend Sarah (Nadia Townsend). The opening montage of unending public arguments reveals the state of Dave’s life. Avoiding responsibilities that come with adulthood, England’s character trope is one regurgitated many times in romantic comedies. He’s selfish and strong-headed, constantly prioritising himself before others. I couldn’t but be reminded of Billy Bob Thornton in Bad Santa (2003). He deliberately slams a door on a kindergarten class bully’s head and openly talks about “slayin’ puss in the playground” to encourage Felix’s classmate crush. He means well, in his own offensively weird way.
Although there are moments when you despise Dave, seeing the character evolve into an empathetic hero feels warranted and is touching. During a sweet late-night discussion with Miss Caroline, he lays all of his insecurities on the table—as she does likewise—including a hilarious anecdote regarding the boyband Hanson, so an honest relationship develops between the pair. He’s inspired to become a better person not only for himself but for his nephew. One can’t help but root for the character’s redemption. Satisfyingly it pays off with a rendition of Neil Diamond’s “Sweet Caroline” as he takes control of the kids when Miss Caroline gets overwhelmed. As Forsythe showcases his sharp screenwriting skills with the actor’s natural charisma, the character development and the relationship with Miss Caroline and Felix feel genuine.
Josh Gad as the children’s TV presenter Teddy McGiggle may be the comedic highlight, however. Known for being the voice of Frozen’s (2013) Olaf and playing the live-action Beauty and the Beast’s (2017) LeFou, Gad is as far from a Disney character as one could imagine. He’s clearly having a great time as he pokes fun at himself and his career of family-friendly characters. With a ridiculous green suit and frog puppet side-kick, Teddy’s an idol to millions of children, including those in Miss Caroline’s class, but he switches from obnoxiously cheerful to spitting profanities to hilarious effect. Although his character’s a caricature of celebrity selfishness, watching Gad slide into madness provides many of the laugh-out-loud moments.
Established in the opening scenes, Little Monsters contains the blunt but witty Aussie humour one would expect from Down Under. There are enough non-PC jokes and tasteless slurs to make Jim Jefferies wince, but they’re delivered with a cheeky wink similar to Taiki Waititi’s What We Do in the Shadows (2014). Forsythe generates comedy primarily through the characters and their situation.
Despite there not being a zombie anywhere for the first 20-minutes, Little Monsters doesn’t suffer from it. Early scenes establish Dave’s narcissistic character and his relationship with his sister and nephew, while Forsythe throws in as much crude comedy as a Judd Apatow movie. At first glance, one wouldn’t realise Little Monsters is a horror. However, the director does find room for plenty of gory gags and set-pieces once the characters reach the petting zoo. Fans of the genre may not be satisfied as they would with a full-on zombie flick, but once the outbreak begins there’s a tonne of bloodshed and decapitations. From pitchforks impaling bodies against trees, to faces being torn apart, gore-hounds will relish every grisly death. A zombie dressed in a koala bear costume and a gruesome attack including a hand puppet are just a few notable highlights. Little Monsters starts to evoke the flesh-eating mayhem of Peter Jackson’s cult classic Braindead (1992) mixed Shaun of the Dead.
Horror fans will also appreciate the nod towards Romero. In one scene, an armed soldier says the zombies are “the slow kind” apposed to the faster undead we’re accustomed to in 28 Days Later (2002) or Train To Busan (2016). Admittedly, the sceptic in me was worried the undead would become an afterthought, but Forsythe teamed up with the incredible SFX team responsible for Academy Award-winning Mad Max: Fury Road (2015), resulting in zombies that look truly horrifying. Although they may be slow and clumsy, their detailed appearances are frightening and you can almost smell the dead flesh on-screen.
Refreshingly, Little Monsters turns stereotypical character tropes upside down: the handsome male lead is a complete liability, the kid’s entertainer actually hates children and swears a lot, and the soft-spoken school teacher becomes a zombie-killing machine to protect her class. Miss Caroline is far from a damsel in distress and prevents the men and children from falling apart, all while slaughtering the undead. As she maintains a beaming smile while sings Taylor Swift’s “Shake it Off” to distract her class from the carnage, Miss Caroline’s sweetness amidst the chaos is similar to the main character in Life is Beautiful (1997).
What makes Little Monsters stand out from the likes of Jim Jarmusch’s The Dead Don’t Die (2019) and Shinichirou Ueda’s One Cut of the Dead (2019), is the juxtaposition between the innocence of children and the horrors of the world. Like a hybrid of Kindergarten Cop (1990) and Zombieland (2009), we want the children to survive but maintain their innocence. Inspired by Forsythe’s real-life experiences of becoming a father and facing the challenges of parenthood, Little Monsters is also about the transition of letting your children go into the world and overcome life’s adversities. Balancing so many tones while maintaining a genuine message is a difficult task, but Forsythe pulls it off.
Blu-ray Special Features:
Little Monsters rises from the grave with a pristine transfer. Presented in 1:85:1 aspect ratio, the 1080p image boasts excellent fine detail and colour depth. Skin tones are natural and the textures in facial features are prominent. Every freckle, scar, and wrinkle can be seen with clarity—especially during close-ups of Dave, as each whisker on his unshaven face is clearly visible. The highlight is the practical zombie prosthetics and VFX work. For a low-budget indie horror, they’re extremely impressive. Scenes with rubbery flesh tearing and organs spilling out are incredibly realistic. The body parts and blood are a bright red that looks amazing, especially contrasting against Miss Caroline’s yellow dress. The detail in the fake guts of animals is particularly detailed, which may make one squirm. Exterior scenes of the farm have a Moonrise Kingdom (2012)-style warmth to them, that is perfect for the Australian setting. Interior scenes are perfectly lit without any prominent shadows. Shots in Tess’s house showcase the image’s beauty further. Finer details such as Felix’s drawings hanging on the fridge are clearly visible even when they’re background.
For a low-budget feature, Little Monsters boasts an impressive DTS-HD MA 5.1 lossless surround sound mix. The rear speakers are fully utilised during horror scenes. The sounds of the children and zombies occurring offscreen surround the rear channels and immerse you in the terrifying situation of the characters. One will be peaking over the shoulder to make sure there is nothing hiding behind your chair. Zombie bites reveal the chattering of their teeth and each drop of blood is followed with a cleat splash. The score during the military heavy scenes makes use of the subwoofer adding depth to the atmosphere. Dialogue scenes are mostly clear. Majority of the profanities have been added using ADR (Automated Dialogue Replacement) as its illegal to use curse words in front of children during production. Yet it blends seamlessly into the mix without any trouble. However, there’s a slight reverb on the sound during several interior scenes. Most notable during Dave and Rory’s confrontation. Fortunately, it disappears once the characters reach the animal farm.
Cast & Crew
writer & director: Abe Forsythe.
starring: Lupita Nyong’o, Alexander England, Kat Stewart, Diesel La Torraca & Josh Gad.