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Cooties: A Film Review
It began as another shitty evening in Times Square, the kind of late summer night where your balls get stuck to the world’s hairy leg. Yet I was determined to make it through the humid muck and mire in order to perform my duty as a sometimes film critic. If you had been there, and maybe some of you were (I did not think neon lights could turn out so many), you would have seen me walking with a purpose. Sweating, cursing, itching, adjusting, scratching, and yet walking with a set destination against everyone going in the opposite direction. That purpose took me through the streets and past every distraction until I reached the special theater where only critics get to tread.
I could not tell how old the building was. It had an art deco flair, but seemed to be an exercise in nostalgia built by the children who grew up in the twenties and became architects in the fifties. The theater itself was redone sometime in the eighties, with faint antiseptic florals and pastels adding a tinge of color. There were no signs to follow to the screening. My only guide was a young man with a clipboard asking every passerby if she or he was here for “cooties.” At first I thought he was some kind of playground Typhoid Mary, until I realized he meant Cooties with a capital C, the title of the movie I was there to watch.
The film before mine was running late and I waited for it to get out. All around me settled the real critics, their scruffy and greasy hair hiding brains percolating with cinematic insight and knowledge. I did my best to look as astute as them by toying with my mustache in a way that was meant to achieve two objectives: One, to show that I was a thoughtful guy immersed in thinking about thoughts. Two, to prove the facial hair was real, a way to make people armed only with stubble back away. It must have worked. A semi-famous critic sat next to me and only looked vaguely uncomfortable. I will not reveal his name because I do not know it. But he has black curly hair and wears glasses. No, it was not Gene Shalit.
When they let us into the theater, I took my seat and realized just how fundamentally different the experience of the critic can be from the typical audience member. Of course, in this day and age the line between filmgoer and film reviewer is heavily blurred (hello!) enough to make you wonder what the projectionist of our contemporary mores is doing. But for a reviewer, or critic who gets to enjoy a film separated from the masses, there is a key factor missing from the experience of the film: all those trailers and ads that numb your brain and ass before you even get to the opening credits.
I didn’t have to sit through them. Not one. We all went right into the film without a delay. This made me wonder if it affects the way films get reviewed. Do meandering films overstuffed with unnecessary subplots that could be shortened twenty or thirty minutes get good reviews because they don’t feel as long to the critic as they do for a regular filmgoer? Do the critics not feel the drag others do because there was no pre-show bombardment of sneak previews for TV shows nobody would actually ever sneak into to see? Perhaps the only true movie review is one that takes the whole experience into account: the sticky floors, the crying babies, the sullen teenagers, the glow of cellphones, etc.
Then again, I felt I had more than paid my dues by walking through Times Square.
Anyway, the film. Cooties comes from writers Leigh Whannell, co-creator of Saw and Insidious, and Ian Brennan, co-creator of Glee. It was directed by Jonathan Milott and Cary Murnion, who previously worked in advertising and are making their feature film debut. Elijah Wood, Rainn Wilson, and Alison Pill all star in what can only be classified as a zombie comedy, a difficult subgenre to pull off. But over 88 minutes, this pool of talent does it splendidly, blending horror, social commentary, and humor together in a film that even I, hardly a devotee of movies about the undead, found enjoyable.
Zombie films by now are a dime a dozen. They’ve become almost like zombies themselves, multiplying and feasting on viewers’ brains, attention spans, and checking accounts. It’s crucial for one to stand out from the pack and Cooties does so splendidly, focusing on a zombie infestation that affects only children, due to in a mishap at a poultry farm that releases contaminated chicken nuggets to young people in schools around the Midwest. Of course, like all good zombie films, Cooties isn’t really about the undead devouring the living. Under the surface it is a satire about the anxieties of modern education, touching on overmedication, overexposure to cellphones, decline of behavioral standards, helicopter parenting, and zero-tolerance policies.
Ultimately, Cooties represents a transmutation of the fears and anxieties borne out by countless newspaper editorials and online diatribes about what kinds of kids we’re raising in the midst of all these issues. While no one of course thinks they will become zombies, it’s not that far a jump from speculations about a generation that grows up numbed by the Internet, drugs, and over-protective parenting and teaching. However, Cooties shows a world in which children have not collectively become passive and mindless per se, but one in which they have completely lost their minds, with coddling, medicating, standardized testing, and self-esteem combining to form the simulacrum of the model student, even if it is contaminated chicken nuggets which are to “officially” blame within the world of the film.
Because of that nugget, Cooties could've been a critique of industrial farming as well. The contamination in one plant ends up spreading the disease to several cities, thanks to the homogenization of our food production (and I’m not talking about milk here). Of course, that would’ve been too much for the movie to bite off and chew in addition to all the other issues it tried to tackle through a horrific and humorous vein.
Purely as a zombie movie, it’s solid. The only thing I couldn't stand was when the characters referenced the idea of a montage scene, then showing said montage, one cliché wrapped up in another. Otherwise, Cooties contains plenty of literal jaw-dropping moments. It is not for the squeamish or the weak of stomach, those who have just eaten, or those who are hungry. Obviously, plenty of violence is involved as the infected children devour their parents and educators. However, a group of the adults do strike back, including the aforementioned stars. A fair number of educators will no doubt get a certain schadenfreude watching the obnoxious class bullies get their own while being run over with a car. Or maybe not. I can only speak from the experience of a former sub, who enjoyed seeing Elijah Wood’s substituting character kick ass.
Anyway, I was in need of a good laugh and I got it. Cooties proved to be a cathartic experience for me, a way to purge the residual horrors and traumas from my subbing days that still resided within me, carved into my mind like Scientology’s infamous engrams. So if you have any such memories and want to stick it to L. Ron Hubbard, I suggest finding the movie online and watching it in the comfort of your own home, since that’s most likely where you’ll find it by now. Again, another difference between the average viewer and the critic in his or her ivory viewing tower.
Of course the average viewer of this film probably won’t have the experience I did right after the film finished. I had the benefit (or curse) of leaving the theater after watching the world in flames on the screen and subsequently rejoicing from seeing civilization still intact afterwards. Yet, looking around Time Square, I couldn’t but help wonder if maybe the zombies have already won.
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