When the opening credits show the unsavory, detailed process of turning chickens into meat paste then into the chicken nuggets that will make their way into school cafeterias across the country, the message for a gory ride is received loud and clear. Particularly when one of those nuggets, sporting an oozing black mass, makes its way onto a child’s plate and dark pus-like liquid gushes out when she bites into it. And thus begins patient zero of a virus that transforms children into homicidal, feral packs.
Of course the virus is still incubating when aspiring writer Clint, played by Elijah Wood, makes his way to Fort Chicken Elementary to begin his first day as a substitute teacher during summer school. There he meets his fellow faculty, including former high school crush Lucy (Alison Pill) and her abrasive boyfriend Wade (Rainn Wilson), the P.E. teacher still trying to recapture his glory days as the school sports star. When patient zero finally turns, in Clint’s classroom no less, and attacks the school bully, things turn sour fast as the virus spreads like wildfire and the motley crew of surviving faculty must ban together to survive.
It’s this perfect combination of oddball teachers that lend so much humor to the story. Each one plays up a stereotype to comedic effect; the token gay teacher, the overly positive teacher, the feminist, the disgruntled PE teacher, the pothead cross walk guard, the nerdy good guy, and the socially awkward science teacher. But the actors often manage to elevate their roles beyond superficial stereotype, only using them as a launching pad for the hilarity. Leigh Whannell, as socially inept science teacher Doug, steals every single scene he’s in. While the entire cast really hoists this film into something special, it’s Whannell that shines brightest. His character’s clear lack of understanding of personal boundaries and interaction with others set up for the film’s funniest moments, as well as what may be one of the grossest film gags in recent memory.
Rainn Wilson also deserves some credit for his comedic chops, as his character develops the most interesting arc over the course of the film. Though the central protagonist is Clint, it’s Wade that develops a more fulfilling character arc over the course of the film. From disgruntled, jealous boyfriend to a more confident badass that seemingly channels their inner Bruce Campbell. This character arc is bolstered by the love triangle plot that unfortunately bogs down the quick pace and carnage in the middle. The only purpose of this subplot seems to be for the sake of character growth, as it halts story progress and fizzles out later on.
The jokes outnumber the body count by far in this horror comedy, but the effective use of gore and a few well-timed tense moments do much to balance the horror with the comedy. The infected kids are just plain creepy. Their sickly heaving breathing, their infected appearance, the way they lurk in the dark waiting for prey, intercut with behaving in typical childlike manner make these children every adult should fear. No one is safe from this swarm.
Not since Tucker and Dale vs. Evil has another horror comedy been so much fun. While not perfect, the balance between horror and comedy is close enough to be worthy of its subgenre. Those with a weak stomach may want to turn away, as the body fluids in this run rampant. Demented humor lovers, this is for you. If ever faced with a pandemic of a nasty child virus inducing murderous kids, there are no better allies than the faculty of Fort Chicken Elementary.
Be sure to watch through the end credits for one final punch line.
Rating: 8 out of 10 cootie shots