You couldn’t guess from her dramatic Oscar-winning performance in 12 Years A Slave or her kinetic warrior/spy role in Black Panther that Lupita Nyong’o has a gift for romantic comedy. But she does.
In fact, this rom/com/horror movie hybrid is the perfect vehicle for her frothy comic expression. Her ingenuity, a cast of adorable kids, a smarmy children’s TV host and an army of flesh-eating zombies help make this not-so-obviously-likable monster mash charming and romantic.
Somewhere in Australia, Dave (Alexander England), a twentysomething-year-old man-child, is in a rocky relationship with his soon-to-be ex-girlfriend Sara (Nadia Townsend). He is oblivious to her concerns, as any wayward narcissist would be. In his head, he’s a rock star. In reality, he’s an untalented singer/guitarist with a voice only a mother could love. Sara kicks the loafer out and he lands at the home of his older sister (Kat Stewart), palling it up with his five-year-old nephew Felix (Diesel La Torraca.).
The directionless Dave finds a goal in life the day he meets Felix’s kindergarten teacher, the lovely and cheery Miss Caroline (Nyong’o). He insinuates himself into Felix’s class, volunteering to go on a school field trip to the “Pleasant Valley Farm,” where they will meet TV host Teddy McGiggle (Josh Gad, Beauty and the Beast) and pet animals. Little do they know, a covert military base next to the park is conducting experiments dubbed “Project Regeneration.” At the facility, humans are turning into flesh-crunching zombies and are now heading towards Pleasant Valley. Oh my god! Save the children! Run!
The first half-hour of this odd tale is slippery. It’s hard to get a grip on Dave because the character is so blah. He’s self-centered, a liar and whiney. You can add cuckold to his resume too: He catches Sara bonking a dweeb real estate agent, threatens to punch the diminutive man, takes a swing and gets pummeled. Nothing he does is right, and he’s crass in front of his little nephew, too. Why would you want to spend more than a second with him?
Yet, this is the protagonist Australian writer/director Abe Forsythe (Down Under) throws our way. Accept, reject or deal. There’s a line in this blood-spewing, head decapitating, midnight movie that hones in on the film’s theme: “Doesn’t matter who you are or what you look like, as long as someone loves you.” If that is the lesson we must learn, so be it. And, thank you. Forsythe’s unique premise grows into a quirky tale, with a peculiar tone that’s sustained for 93 minutes.
The script’s odd mix of playful innocent children, with very adult situations, graphic language and gratuitous violence can be off-putting initially. Your conscience is telling you that these little actors shouldn’t repeat bad words or be surrounded by bloodied ghouls who want to chomp on them like shrimp cocktails. It’s an uncomfortable experience. Yet, in the most absurd and steady ways, the earnest cast, their quirky performances and a plight that will reach do-or-die proportions quickly grows on you, breaking down all defenses.
England’s interpretation of Dave isn’t all that likable. But something in the character makes you want him to achieve and succeed. Like a Labrador puppy who you hope one day will figure out how to do its business outside, and not on the carpet. It’s slow going, but you don’t give up. The second that Dave meets Miss Caroline, hope walks onto the screen. A flirty romance buds. They need each other, though he more than she. And, he is as confused as she is laser focused: As menacing ghouls circle them, the teacher commands the moment and captures her troop’s attention: “One, two, three — eyes on me!”
Nyong’o as the educator is so affable and understanding it’s no wonder the loser falls for her. You will too. She’s unflappable, brave and positive in the most bleak situations. She’s a credit to the teaching profession, even as she bludgeons zombies with a shovel and their blood spurts all over her sleeveless, yellow summer dress. Not every actress could read this script and figure out an organic way to make the teacher so damn appealing. But this award-winning, Yale School of Drama graduate finds a way. Incidentally, casting a Kenyan actress in a movie set Down Under is a stroke of genius.
The film’s second biggest asset are the child actors, led by La Torraca as Felix. As an ensemble, their performances always seem natural, sweet, sensitive, annoying and inquisitive all at the right time. Credit director Forsythe for his intuitive approach; under his guidance, the children are as natural acting as the kids next door. Josh Gad as the untrustworthy, drunken TV host is funny and irreverent. If you can imagine Mr. Rogers, Soupy Sales or Captain Kangaroo as a mean drunk, you get the picture.
A bright color scheme (Carlo Crescini, art director) remains eye catching for the duration. The pacing and rhythm, once the monsters appear, become spot-on (Jim May and Drew Thompson, editors). Nyong’o’s skin glows under the deft lighting (Lachian Milne, cinematographer). The alternately cheery and ominous musical score (Piers Burbrook de Vere), is augmented by bits of Taylor Swift’s infectious song “Shake It Off.” Swift’s tune adds a friendly pop-culture touch: “’Cause the players gonna play, play, play, play, play. And the haters gonna hate, hate, hate, hate, hate. Baby, I’m just gonna shake, shake, shake, shake, shake. I shake it off, I shake it off.”
Can you really dislike a film in which a brave kindergarten teacher protects her class from the walking dead and a possible bombing by an overzealous army? Are dismemberments, gore and bawdy talk gonna scare you or the target midnight movie audience away? No!
Prepare to be seduced, appalled and humored by this eccentric horror movie. Get awed by an accomplished actress who shines bright like a diamond on a battlefield of human-munching monsters.