When his young nephew Felix (Diesel La Torraca) heads out with his class to a petting farm known as Pleasant Valley, Dave tags along for purely selfish reasons — specifically, the hope of impressing Felix’s captivating teacher Miss Caroline (Lupita Nyong’o, bringing charm and irony to a potentially one-note role). The farm is right next to a US army base, the source of the zombie outbreak. Dave and Miss Caroline have their hands full trying to survive while protecting the kids, with minimal assistance from a capering American kids’ show host known as Teddy McGiggle (Josh Gad), real name Nathan Schneider.
Forsythe has learnt a lot about filmmaking since his feature debut, the ill-fated 2003 spoof Ned. The script for Little Monsters is a skilful piece of work: there are many running gags with satisfying pay-offs and the dialogue has a well-judged blend of crassness and specificity. The central section resourcefully works through the possibilities of a single location, while the editing takes special care with reaction shots, the children serving mostly as spectators of the adult drama.
In terms of theme, the film calls for pondering. On one level, it’s a straightforward story about an arrested adolescent who learns to take responsibility on the way to becoming a potential dad.
But as in Forsythe’s 2016 black comedy Down Under, there’s also a political subtext. Gradually the penny drops that this is a story about border protection, especially once all the major characters find refuge in the besieged Pleasant Valley gift shop, with an Australian flag fluttering atop the roof. A pointed element of anti-American satire is channelled chiefly but not solely through Gad, a naturally dislikeable but expert performer who plumbs new depths in self-abasement.
Where do these different levels of meaning intersect? Forsythe doesn’t fully show his hand until the last moment, but the ironies that eventually emerge are almost worthy of Korea’s Bong Joon-ho (whose satirical 2006 monster movie The Host may have been a direct influence).
It must be admitted that while Forsythe slathers on the gore as required, his zombies are not scary; perhaps zombies never will be again. But that doesn’t stop the oddly moving, rather desolate ending from hitting home.