Think you’ve seen enough zombie movies? Well, The Walking Dead might have made the undead epic, and Jim Jarmusch might have made them funny in The Dead Don’t Die, but Abe Forsythe adds something even more shocking to the mix in Little Monsters: kids. Yep, guts are ripped out and gorged on, heads are blown off, and F-bombs fly thick and fast…all in the presence of children. It is, to say the very least, quite an accomplishment.
The group of kids in question are a kindergarten class of five-year-olds enjoying a class excursion to a petting zoo, under the care of their spirited, caring, Taylor Swift-singing teacher, Miss Caroline (Oscar winning import Lupita Nyong’o), and the hapless Dave (Alexander England), the grubby man-child uncle of one of the kids, who is only there in the hope that he might be able to, ahem, get a little closer to the aforementioned Miss Caroline. Unfortunately for the kids and their carers (and a lot of other people too), the petting zoo is located dangerously close to a covert US military base, from whence eventually lope a horde of army-made zombies. Cue much blood and guts.
Though a fan of one-time horror masters like Peter Jackson and Sam Raimi, Little Monsters truly grew out of Abe Forsythe’s fandom of someone decidedly more important to him: his eight-nearly-nine-year-old son, Spike. “I’ve learned so much since becoming a parent,” Forsythe tells FilmInk. The story of Little Monsters itself began when the director was accompanying his son on a school excursion to the very same petting zoo where the film was shot. “Something not-so-great happened on this excursion, and that made me think about how difficult it would be to protect these kids. And that then made me think about how you would protect 25 kids from zombies! But also, not just how you protect them from having their brains eaten, but how do you protect their minds from not being scarred from what’s happening around them. My son’s teacher was so amazing at looking after him on this excursion that I thought if there was a zombie apocalypse, I’d be happy with her being the one to look after him. But that then also made me think about things that had happened in my life since becoming a parent, and also about my life before becoming a parent. It’s all represented in this movie.”
So how did Forsythe actually protect his young cast? As well as blood-and-gore covered zombies, the film features a creature even more monstrous: another international import, Josh Gad (best known for voicing the snowman Olaf in Disney’s Frozen), as Teddy McGiggle, a world famous children’s entertainer who also happens to be a foul mouthed raving alcoholic and rampant sex addict. “Obviously, the kids are not actually on the set when the adult characters are screaming and swearing and things like that,” Forsythe explains. “You just have to be careful about how you get everything in your coverage. I’d film them reacting to something else, like me clapping loudly to give them a fright, and then cut it together. We also used a multitude of tricks to shield them from all of the horrible stuff. Firstly, we had to find kids who would be okay with being in a zombie movie. Then we did a series of workshops where the kids spent time with our make-up department, and got to see zombie make-up being applied. They got to play with the make-up, and were able to get used to it. They got to put make-up on their parents, and got to have fun with it.”
The lead character of Miss Caroline was also essential in keeping the kids safe. “I wrote the script very carefully so that it’s Miss Caroline who leads the children through everything,” Forsythe explains. “So when we filmed, we had Lupita doing the same thing, and leading the kids. Miss Caroline is the real hero of the film. When I pitched the film overseas, I spoke about her like Ripley in Aliens or Sarah Connor in Terminator 2…she’s this fierce, protective, maternal figure in the film. These are great action heroes, but you really care about them too. They feel like they come from a real place, and not just a cartoonish place. Miss Caroline really leads the kids in the film. In that way, we could capture their spontaneous reactions to things, because quite often, you can only really get gold from a kid once.”
Getting that gold was not easy. Due to child labour laws, the young actors were only allowed to work for brief periods, which made the shoot logistically tricky. Forsythe employed two dramaturgs to work with the kids, and keep their energy levels up. Also, for scenes involving kid zombies – yes, there are kid zombies – only older children were used, and they were played by the progeny of the film’s stunt performers, so they knew how things worked on a film set. With both cast and crew, Forsythe also sought out people that he knew could work well with children. “That was very important,” he says. “That would make everything so much easier. That was a big part of why we cast Alexander England in the lead role; I knew that he could work with kids. It was so great having Josh Gad in the film too, because the kids know him as Olaf from Frozen…that made everything so much more palatable, particularly considering how profoundly awful the character of Teddy McGiggle is.”
And while Forsythe’s previous film – the savagely funny Down Under, an ingenious comedic take-down of the infamously racially charged Cronulla Riots – was no walk in the park, Little Monsters was a mammoth undertaking not just in low budget filmmaking, but in working with children and putting audiences right in the middle of a localised zombie nightmare. “It was a team effort, but it was really, really hard…probably the hardest thing that I’ve ever done,” Forsythe says. “On top of all the logistic things, it was so important to protect their innocence, in much the way that Miss Caroline does. But I always knew that this was such an important part of the movie, because you just can’t fake what a child is at that age. It was exhausting and challenging, but it was also the biggest reward in making the movie.”
It was also essential to the very themes that push Little Monsters into fresh territory outside that usually explored in the over-crowded zombie genre. “This movie for me,” Forsythe says, “is about the absolute best of human behaviour, which is personified in the way that a child sees the world, and the absolute worst of human behaviour, which is what can happen to us as adults when we lose sight of the beauty and the innocence of the world, and how that world looks through the eyes of a child.”