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With the school year and Halloween just around the corner, it's high-time to brush up on Cooties, the genre-blending, all-star horror-comedy feature debut of directors Cary Murnion and Jonathan Milott. Named for the fictional infection used by students to ostracize their peers in classrooms the world over, the film centers around a motley crew of elementary school teachers who must band together in an effort to fend off a horde of students infected with a zombie-like virus that turns them into raging, cannibalistic monsters. One might even go so far as to call it "Undead Poets Society."
"I think this is one of those [films] that if you have that weird, twisted sense of humor — where you don't mind watching adults beat up zombie kids — you just get it and it's funny as hell," Milott tells SYFY WIRE over Zoom. "So it's good to see that it's still out there and still getting some love."
"It's a fun time to have the movie out there right now for this next couple of months [and] having people rediscover it or rewatch it and find funny things in it," adds Murnion.
A melding of academic light-heartedness and visceral terror, the script came from an unlikely writing duo: Glee co-creator, Ian Brennan, and Saw and Insidious alum, Leigh Whannell. Development on the film began under SpectreVision, the horror/thriller-focused production company co-founded by Elijah Wood, who found himself impressed by Murnion and Millot's short film "Boob" (a Frankenstein-esque tale of a living breast), which had been accepted into the annual SXSW film festival.
"We did a massive pitch book [for Cooties]. We even did a sizzle reel, where we mixed together the horror and the comedic aspects of everything," Murnion recalls. "That was a real challenge: balancing those tones. Because it was really funny, but we also wanted to have real scares in it ... That was part of our pitch, ‘How do we balance those tones and make it funny and scary?’ So we used some film references. Gremlins was a big reference for us."
Milott also cites Trainspotting and Raising Arizona, and The Breakfast Club as major inspirations. "Taking these weird, quirky comedies and mixing it with the horror," he explains. "One of the things we did for the cover of our pitch book was… there was a comedy film with Will Ferrell [2005's Kicking and Screaming], where he's getting wrestled by all these kids. We just made all the kids’ faces have zombie [attributes] and blood and stuff like that. It's a Will Ferrell movie, but once you make the kids zombies, it becomes a little more terrifying than just a straight comedy."
And then came the cast, an insanely talented ensemble that included Wood, Whannell, Rainn Wilson (The Office), Alison Pill (Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World), Jorge Garcia (Lost), Jack McBrayer (30 Rock), and Nasim Pedrad (Saturday Night Live). "On the first day of shooting ... we were just thrown into our first feature film, and just surrounded by a murderer's row of comedians and talent, and it was just like, ‘Oh, s*** — here we go!’" reflects Milott.
Everyone gets a chance to shine, but it's Whannell who really steals the show as Doug, a socially inept sex education teacher whose savant-like understanding of biology allows him to provide context on the highly communicable pathogen.
"We thought it was it was funny to have a comic relief in a comedy," Murnion says. "He was the one who, when serious things were going on, was always on a tangent and that was the fun part of that character ... It was just a way to get you out of a scene and also look at scenes differently. He supposedly had some background in sex education and science, so he's able to be that person to lead us down the path of how this is really happening ... even if it was completely absurd. That was part of the fun of it: ‘Where was Doug going to go and what was he going to say in these in these various situations?’"
"We actually had to rein [Leigh] in because he was improv-ing too much instead of sticking to the script," Milott adds. "His script was hilarious and amazing and awesome, and he would just veer off course and keep improving. We're like, ‘Whoa, whoa, whoa... dude, the script is pretty good already.’"
Of course, ad-libbing was still constantly encouraged on-set, resulting in a meta Lord of the Rings joke in which Rainn's character — macho gym teacher, Wade — disparages Wood's character — aspiring author and substitute teacher, Clint — by calling him a Hobbit. "We weren't sure, like, ‘Should we use that? Does that break the fourth wall of what's real and what's not?’" Murnion admits. "One of everyone's favorite lines is having Elijah ‘running around like a little Hobbit,’ and that was just Rainn being Rainn."
The directors also pushed for practical effects wherever possible "because, in this genre, I feel like that's what people respond to; the visceral feeling that people put the work into doing something that can make you scream or laugh or cringe," Murnion explains.
In the opening minutes, for example, a young girl (played by Sunny May Allison) bites into a befouled cafeteria chicken nugget containing the pesky disease. The prop was a purported combination of ground-up chicken, applesauce, peanut butter, jelly, and green food dye. "We [had] 10 to 30 different chicken nuggets," Murnion reveals. "It was a young actress — she really was eight or nine years old at the time — and she had to be able to bite into it and not throw up. And so, we worked with all the different departments to make that happen with this one little nugget. We [had] grids of what the nugget [would] look like and the different veins coming out of it."
"That's the best thing about filmmaking, when you're spending half a day making sure the vein on a chicken nugget is right and then the oozing puss inside of it that's made out of jelly and peanut butter tastes good, but still [looks like] disgusting puss," echoes Milott. "We love that."
While it's been almost an entire decade since Cooties first infected the playground, the odds of a potential franchise aren't (patient) zero, especially since the movie ends on a more open-ended note, with the educators driving off into an unknown apocalypse with the hope of developing a vaccine from one of the contaminated nuggets.
"There’s been some talk of a TV show, there's been some talk of a movie," Murnion says, pointing to the streaming success of Netflix's All of Us Are Dead as a positive indicator that there might be a hunger for more Cooties mayhem. "It would be fun to see where that would go sometime. SpectreVision is always making stuff and there's always a little talk about where that can go. Getting that cast back together would be extremely hard. But it'd be fun to see if some part of the cast or one of the characters [can come back] because there's a real world there that can be built out."
"I think the coolest thing would be if we could get like 10 times the budget and do like a World War Z-style version of it," adds Millot.
As they wait for breaking news on the junior zombie front, the filmmakers have shifted their attention to a pair of genre-related projects, which Murnion teases as "a neo-Western" and a "really great action-comedy that has a really cool premise to it." The goal, he explains, is to not only push themselves as cinematic storytellers, but to also "refine some of the things that we’ve worked on in the past and keep in the genre space and keep on pushing ourselves."
The duo are also producing a sequel to their summer 2020 sleeper hit, Becky, a gonzo home invasion thriller that brought a great deal of box office hope to a theatrical industry pummeled into submission by the onset of the COVID-19 crisis. Lulu Wilson is locked in to return as the titular Becky, who will once again go toe-to-toe with fascist a-holes (led by Sean William Scott's Darryl). "We're excited to keep the whole Becky train going," Murnion concludes. "It's fun to start it off and see where it goes from here."
Cooties is now streaming on Peacock.