Want more SXSW horror besides Little Monsters? Check out my SXSW 2019 Horror Lineup post.

The zombie horror-comedy is so popular that it’s nearly a separate horror sub-genre. Films like Dead Alive, Shaun of the dead, and Zombieland have shown just how fun and raucous a zombie film can be without skimping on the gory set pieces we all love. But not all zombie comedies meet the mark. To be successful, a zombie horror-comedy must command two separate films in one, and as such, must strike a balance between the gravity of a zombie outbreak while creating relatable, funny characters.

At first, Little Monsters might seem like too risky a premise to strike that balance. Set in present-day Australia, Little Monsters follows Dave (Alexander England), who is crashing on his sister’s couch after his life craters. When he’s not smoking weed, he’s watching his adorable 5-year old nephew, Felix (Diesel La Torraca). Once Dave meets Felix’s lovely kindergarten teacher, Miss Caroline (Lupita Nyong’o), he decides to pursue her by volunteering to chaperone the class’s field trip to a local petting zoo. Little do they know that the American army base next door to the petting zoo has been secretly conducting zombie experiments (naturally). The zombies escape, of course, and Dave and Ms. Caroline find themselves responsible for the lives of eight adorable, innocent, precocious kindergarteners. And if that wasn’t enough, they must also contend with Teddy McGiggle (Josh Gad), a highly annoying kids’ entertainer who shows his true sleazeball colors once shit goes down.

Little Monsters, which premiered at Sundance and screened at SXSW, is a delightful movie, with great acting, scores of laugh-out-loud adult jokes, and solid albeit basic zombie fare. The film successfully replicates the structure of films like Shaun of the Dead and Zombieland by focusing on our shared humanity in the face of a zombie catastrophe. It does this with developed characters (including one of the most substantial female leads in a zombie movie ever) including realistically rendered little kids.

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Josh Gadd really takes advantage of the opportunity to rip apart his squeaky clean Disney image.

Horror movies that center around children are usually more tragic than comical, since putting children in harm’s way is difficult to do without it feeling cheap or exploitive. But Little Monsters is surprising in that it successfully manages the audience’s fear for the children while harnessing the unique humor only children can provide. Sure, they’re small, but Little Monsters is careful to treat them like small human beings.

In short, you’re scared for the kids, but they’re so freakin’ cute and hilariously innocent that you can’t help but laugh your head off. Kids could have easily become a cheesy, lazy way to score sympathy and frighten the audience, but the film’s script avoids those pitfalls. (Still, as a new parent myself, seeing those cute kids caught in the middle of a zombie outbreak scared on me on an existential level, holy crap.)

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Like successful zombie horror-comedies, Little Monsters never forgets that its goal is to tell a story about the relationships that are tested and strengthened by a zombie outbreak. It would have been so easy to make Dave merely a douchebag (for the record, he is one), but Alexander England brings vulnerability to the role. This nuance makes it clear that he’s just a confused, lonely guy who has taken advantage of the relationships in his life even as he yearns for what he’s missing. His bond with Felix matures and evolves while they’re holed up against the zombies, both of them learning from and to depend on each other in genuinely touching moments. It’s a credit to the actors (particularly child actor La Torraca) and the writing that their relationship feels so organic and heartfelt.

Similarly, the relationship between Miss Caroline and Dave could have ended up like so many lame movie love interests; instead, their interactions evolve past Dave’s objectifying crush on Miss Caroline to become rooted in genuine respect and admiration.

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In fact, Miss Caroline is one of the best parts of the movie. As the children’s teacher, she’s insanely competent, calm, cool, and collected, almost to a superhuman degree. My only real criticism is that I wish we got to see more of Miss Caroline’s inner life—she’s written almost too close to the “strong female character” trope, an endlessly capable and heroic woman who is not the movie’s hero. If not for Lupita breathing subtle moments of doubt and fatigue into her character, she wouldn’t seem like a real person. We see that she is a highly competent woman who is struggling to be the best damn kindergarten teacher she can be. That’s engaging stuff right there, especially for those of us who have kids.

If I’m honest, I couldn’t help but wonder why she wasn’t the protagonist of Little Monsters.

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Some horror fans may find the movie not scary or horrific enough. In particular, the film might disappoint zombie fans since it doesn’t focus on zombies. Other complaints might stem from the level of gore, which isn’t as pervasive as one might like to see from such a movie. But at least the carnage that does exist is well done (a scene involving the McGiggle-mobile is satisfyingly gruesome). Little Monsters also does not devote as much time to creating a new zombie experience and relies on established zombie tropes, but it gets the job done. The film also is self-aware about its zombies, which is a refreshing take (for example, characters call them “zombies”). Still, if all you want out of a zombie movie is a fresh insight into the walking undead, you won’t find it in Little Monsters.

All in all, Little Monsters is a charming zombie movie with heart, cuteness, naughty jokes, and enough gore to please.

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