The clever premise behind "Cooties" is so simple that it's hard to believe no one had already used it before "Saw" writer Leigh Whannell and "Glee" co-creator Ian Brennan* got to it. A bacterial outbreak at an elementary school turns the kids into ravenous, flesh-eating zombies** who attack each other while the uninfected teachers and faculty barricade themselves inside the building. The "little monsters" figure of speech made literal? The sight of children ripping limbs from torsos? Yes, please!
But "Cooties," while suitably gross and buoyed by game performances, doesn't exploit its concept nearly as well as it should. Co-directed by first-timers Jonathan Milott and Cary Murnion, it turns out to be a fairly standard horror-comedy with an uneven execution and a script that needed revision. When you see little girls on a playground using someone's intestines as a jump rope, you think: That kind of macabre brilliance should be the rule in a movie like this, not the exception.
It sure starts out well, though, with a graphic, up-close depiction of an infected chicken nugget being made, beginning with the death of the chicken and ending with a grade-schooler biting into the oozing product. This sequence may put you off chicken nuggets forever, assuming the nuggets themselves have not already done so.
The setting is an elementary school, where a would-be horror novelist named Clint (Elijah Wood), having returned to his hometown after failing to make it big as a writer, is spending his first day as a substitute teacher. He is pleased to see an old friend, the chirpy Lucy (Alison Pill), as a fellow instructor, and dismayed to learn she's dating Wade (Rainn Wilson), the dumb, brutish gym coach. When the zombie outbreak happens -- it's first manifested when a boy yanks an infected girl's pigtail and it breaks off from her scalp -- Clint, Lucy, Wade, and the other adults must go through the usual steps to protect themselves, fight the monsters, and get to safety.
The tone is arch and satiric, often funny. Clint tries out several preposterous opening lines for his novel, which is about a demonic boat; there's a kid in his class named Patriot because he was born on 9/11; there are laughs at the expense of public school bureaucracy and political correctness. Elijah Wood does well as the lone semi-normal person in the room, reacting to the others' quirkiness.
But except for the spacey health teacher (co-writer Whannell), whose scientific knowledge comes in handy later, most of the characters are extraneous and ill-defined: one teacher (Jack McBrayer) is very obviously gay but in denial about it, har har; another (Nasim Pedrad) is a shrill woman who introduces herself to Clint by preemptively mentioning she has a rape whistle, har har; out in the parking lot sits a fat guy (Jorge Garcia) in a van, taking psychedelic mushrooms and contributing nothing to the plot.
Milott and Murnion revel in the campy gore, daring us to laugh as we're being grossed out. That's a key component of a zombie comedy, and the directors get it. But another crucial element is exciting, creative, or memorable action sequences, and "Cooties" has none. We always dreamed that when we finally saw a horror comedy about cannibalistic child-monsters, it would be more fulfilling than this weak but enthusiastic entry.
SCORE: 5.0 / 10
*How's that for a partnership made in heaven?
**These are the "28 Days Later" kind of zombies, by the way, not the "Night of the Living Dead" kind. We're not going to argue about whether or not they are technically "zombies" because we are grown ups.