Cooties: Sundance Review

Funny ensemble pic stands a severed head or two above the zombie comedy pack.

Elijah Wood, Rainn Wilson, and Alison Pill play teachers helping their colleagues survive an attack of elementary-school zombies.

It's been a while since the zom-com genre saw an entry as strong as Cooties, which sets its flesh-eater outbreak at a white-bread elementary school and forces faculty to stay a step ahead of the now-zombified kids they once tried to teach. Star-stuffed, well paced and very funny, Jonathan Milott and Cary Murnion's debut is closest in commercial terms to 2009's Zombieland, and should easily connect with auds beyond the genre-buff faithful.

Elijah Wood leads a well balanced ensemble as Clint, a would-be novelist who recently moved back to his hometown after failing to make it in New York. Starting a gig as a substitute teacher at his old school, he recognizes former classmate Lucy (Alison Pill) among a teaching staff packed with colorful personalities. Clint clearly retains his high-school crush on Lucy, but soon learns she's dating boorish P.E. coach Wade (Rainn Wilson, excellently cast).

Clint has bigger worries than a tracksuit-wearing romantic rival, though: A girl in his class has eaten tainted chicken nuggets (a meat-processing intro sequence is as revolting as any of the eviscerations to come), and when her sallow-faced queasiness draws too much attention from the class bully, she leaps into feral mode and chews off part of his face.

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Her disease spreads quickly among classmates, setting a familiar chain of events in motion once the playground has become a giddy George Romero nightmare: Those adults who survive the initial carnage barricade themselves in the teachers' lounge, are forced to flee to a safer room, develop some theories about what's happening around them, and so on. Flaring tempers and panic threaten their solidarity, while each new safe place seems further from a possible escape route.

While the action adheres knowingly to the zombie-siege template, the script (by Saw and Insidious franchise veteran Leigh Whannell and co-writer Ian Brennan) keeps plenty of running jokes and developing characters going in the background. Clint can't stop talking about his novel (a demon-possessed boat travesty titled Keel them All); Tracy (Jack McBrayer) is repeatedly forced to deny his alleged homosexuality; and a socially inept sex-ed teacher (amusingly played by Whannell) finds that his unconventional interests make him well equipped to get to the bottom of undead-related phenomena. The central non-lethal issue, of course, is the escalating competition between Clint and Wade over Lucy, who's the group's stay-positive cheerleader. Wilson's alpha-male act (never derivative of his character on The Office, who fills a similar slot in that group's dynamics) supplies just enough anger to keep things uncomfortable even when there's no bloody-faced pre-adolescent banging at the door.

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Effects work is excellent and receives just the right amount of attention from Milott and Murnion; Lyle Vincent's  lensing is pleasingly poppy without drawing attention to itself. A side plot involving a school security guard (Lost's Jorge Garcia) who witnesses the outbreak from afar while tripping on mushrooms is underdeveloped, but offers just enough laughs to justify its presence in the final cut.

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Production Companies: SpectreVision, Glacier Films

Cast: Elijah Wood, Rainn Wilson, Alison Pill, Jack McBrayer, Nasim Pedrad, Jorge Garcia, Leigh Whannell, Ian Brennan

Directors: Jonathan Milott, Cary Murnion

Screenwriters: Leigh Whannell, Ian Brennan

Producers: Daniel Noah, Josh C. Waller, Elijah Wood, Steven Schneider, Georgy Malkov, Tove Christensen

Executive producers: Ian Brennan, Leigh Whannell, Gevond Andreasyan, Sarik Andreasyan, Seth William Meier

Director of photography: Lyle Vincent

Production designer: Thomas William Hallbauer

Music: Kreng

Costume designer: Gina Scarnati

Editor: Brett W. Bachman

Sales: Ben Weiss, Paradigm

No rating, 94 minutes