Reviewer: Philip Price
Director: Christopher Landon
Stars: Blake Anderson, David Koechner, Halston Sage, Joey Morgan, Logan Miller, Patrick Schwarzegger, Sarah Dumont, Tye Sheridan
Released: November 6th, 2015
How do you make another zombie movie in a market saturated by the like truly stand out? Contemporary audiences are so accustomed to seeing people get their throats ripped out by the undead that they settle in for it every Sunday night. So, the questions remains: if you’re set on making a movie featuring zombies, how do you make it feel fresh? Or necessary? Director Christopher Landon (Paranormal Activity: The Marked Ones) answers that question by combining the zombie genre with that of a raunchy teen sex comedy and allowing this interesting hybrid of styles to both acknowledge their debt to where they came from while at the same time pushing the boundaries as far as they can go so as to appease that “contemporary” part of the audience. The result of such experimenting? A really fun time. More over, a better time than you’d likely expect after just hearing that pitch. That Scouts Guide to the Zombie Apocalypse goes in such the opposite direction of what expectations were, it immediately becomes something of a treasure trove of a movie-making audience members wonder with anticipation about what we might come across next. There is something to be said about the type of film that initially seems to be nothing more than a rejected, cheap satirical comedy that stars David Koechner, but is slowly accepted over time for being judged not purely on it’s credentials or the circumstances of the time in which it was made, but rather for the singular type of experience it’s viewing brings. I’m not saying the same with will happen with this film as say Hocus Pocus, but the film in and of itself is way too enjoyable and way too appealing (especially to teen audiences) to fall by the wayside forever. At an hour and a half the film breezes by with an effortless ease that sets up it’s (mostly) likable characters, presents us with it’s conflict and then utilizes it’s quirky premise to round things out in a satisfying and largely hilarious manner.
Opening with Workaholis star Blake Anderson as a janitor dancing to Iggy Azalea and Rita Ora’s “Black Widow” at a scientific facility we are privy to the birth of a zombie outbreak. Anderson, perfectly encapsulating what it feels like to be a janitor who really gets into their job by getting into a song, helps to immediately set the film’s tone by alerting us it won’t be taking anything seriously. The fact it chooses such a current song also signals a sense of hipness paired with mockery depending on how you choose to interpret the film’s position on youth culture. I prefer to think Landon and his team want to embrace youthful exuberance while highlighting the trends of our current time so as to firmly root this film in this decade. Again, it will only stand to seemingly make the film even more endearing later. Once the set-up is spun we are introduced to three High School sophomores including Ben (Tye Sheridan), Carter (Logan Miller), and Augie (Joey Morgan). The three friends are still practicing Scouts and are currently trying to recruit new members for their group, led by Scout Leader Rogers (David Koechner). Given their age and the cultural perception of the Boy Scouts when equated with high school aged kids, things aren’t going well. While Augie is the stilted youth who’s afraid to move on, Ben and Carter have been having second thoughts about continuing to participate in the Scouts. On the night we meet the three friends, Augie is set to get his Condor Patch, but when Ben and Carter come across Carter’s sister, Kendal (Halston Sage), and her friends they’re invited to a “Secret Seniors Party”. In order to go, Ben and Carter will have to ditch Augie, but Ben is hesitant. Ben’s also had a crush on Kendal since the sixth grade, though, so he’s torn. With a plan of going to the campsite and going through the motions until Augie falls asleep then sneaking out Ben and Carter make a failed attempt to buy alcohol for the party until they cross paths with Denise (Sarah Dumont), a cocktail waitress at a strip club, who agrees to buy the alcohol for them. Before the night is out, Carter and Ben sneak away to attend the party and drive into town to find that it’s been invaded by the likes of the walking dead.
What makes any comedy work first is the chemistry and charm of it’s cast and those qualities are evident in Scouts Guide to the Zombie Apocalypse almost immediately. Between Sheridan, Miller and Morgan there is a clear camaraderie from the get-go as, despite the way they talk about him behind his back, it’s clear Carter and especially Ben care about Augie. Augie is dealing with either the loss of his father or his father’s choice to walk away from him (it never clarifies and the absence of any parental figure is key to the films tone) by attempting to never change the state in which he was in when he lost his father. Ben and Carter are ready to move on though, ready to mature in ways that no longer include accomplishing tasks for badges. Through the three leads we genuinely buy into the friendships they share and thus give real credence to their characters arcs. Ben and Carter have a different relationship than Ben and Augie while Augie and Carter have their own relationship independent of their similar interests. That is all to say that there are actual connections between these characters and while the premise is more than outlandish with the tone only making it all the more ridiculous, we buy into the peril and the sense of danger and come to care about these situations because we come to sincerely care about the characters in them. Even more refreshing is the film’s choice to introduce Dumont’s Denise and place her as something of the alpha male among the team who is forced to always save the guys butts. Even the more extraneous characters, including Koechner’s Scout Leader and Sage’s Kendal, work to develop our main characters further. The interaction our trio of lead protagonists have with these other people in their lives give a clear idea of where each of them are at in their awkward adolescence. The overriding idea that zombie’s have always been a larger metaphor for our societies consistently hypnotized/automaton-like state by applying it to the smart phone generation is expertly done by again giving the original genre it’s due while enlisting the sarcastic, carefree tone that is largely attributed to our current narcissistic generation.
How does it convey such a tone beyond the attitude’s of it’s characters you ask? Well, the answer is by being really juvenile in it’s comedy and yet somehow still being able to remain really funny to audiences that would typically age out of such antics by the their mid-twenties. It doesn’t hurt that given the investment we make in these appealing characters that we tend to cut them a little slack based on their age and ignorance. They’re appropriate for their stage in life and yet they’re never repulsive to the point of complete idiocy. Sure, Carter can be a little much to take sometimes in that the movie maybe allows him to do too much, but he has some of the best one liners and where he ends up from where he began feels like a real payoff. Speaking of payoffs, the script that was written by a team of four writers including director Landon is big on setting things up and paying them off later. It’s a solid way to structure a comedy script and the screenwriters have come up with several good ones that brought a big smile to my face if not a few laugh out loud moments. Whether it be the opening sequence where a scientist is having issues with a vending machine, Cloris Leachman as Carter’s old cat lady neighbor or Scout Leader Rogers’ Dolly Parton obsession that leads to a chase sequence set to “9 to 5,” there are a consistent enough amount of them that the film feels coherent not only in it’s comedy, but in how it plays strongly to that target generation’s corrupted sensibilities. It’s not just in the set-ups and pay offs that the film succeeds comically, either. Small details like a fat zombie wearing a YOLO shirt, a zombie jumping on a trampoline outside a window that upends a typical horror movie trope or even the most outrageous scene that has Ben hanging on for dear life by a zombie penis all hit their mark. Sure, the action scenes can get a little messy where it’s hard to see exactly what’s happening, but this is a minor problem among a film I imagined might have a lot more. Maybe the most winning quality of the movie though is that it feels akin to something of a different era. It’s like a raunchy comedy of the late seventies or early eighties which inherently gives the audience a sense of nostalgia. I, for one, am thankful it was made at this point in time though, as otherwise we wouldn’t have the gem of a scene where Augie and Carter serenade a zombie with a Britney Spears classic.