From Dawn of the Dead to 24 Days Later, the best zombie movies always cast the marauding monsters as a metaphor for real-life horrors.
That’s true too of Down Under director Abe Forsythe’s surprisingly cute horror comedy Little Monsters.
Filmed in the 38-year-old’s home town of Sydney, the Melbourne International Film Festival (MIFF) centrepiece stars Oscar winner Lupita Nyong’o (12 Years a Slave, Us) as kindergarten teacher Miss Caroline.
She has to fight off a brain-eating horde that attacks her kids while they’re on a trip to a petting zoo.
Aided by Down Under star Alexander England as slacker uncle Dave, escorting his nephew Felix (Diesel La Torraca).
When we caught up during MIFF, a jovial Forsythe revealed the real fear behind the movie’s mad idea.
Much like Felix, Forsythe’s son Spike, 8, has life-threatening food allergies.
The filmmaker was terrified the first time he dropped him off at kindergarten.
“He was four and had never been out of my care, so for me to relinquish control of his world to someone else was terrifying,” Forsythe said.
“But his kindy teacher was amazing. Not only was she able to look after his health, she also opened up his mind to the world for the first time outside of me.”
While on a kindy excursion to a farm, a tractor train driver stopped to check out something up ahead.
Something about the location sparked memories of loving Lord of the Rings director Peter Jackson’s gory early movies.
They remain huge influences on his darkly comic work, alongside the films of Mad Max director George Miller.
An only child, Forsythe first saw Bad Taste at home around 10. His dad then snuck him into the cinema to see Brain Dead aged 12. He adored their OTT, Monty Python-like madness.
“That was at the Valhalla, a beautiful old cinema that doesn’t exist any more and you’d see a triple bill with cordial and Jaffas,” he recalled.
“I was exposed to the greats of cinema there. Stanley Kubrick, Peter Weir, Mike Nicholls.”
When producers challenged Forsythe to shoot for the stars, literally, in casting Miss Caroline, Nyong’o was his first pick.
Even though they shared a US agency in common, Forsythe never believed they’d get her – she was working on Marvel hit Black Panther at the time – but a freaky coincidence sealed the deal.
Utterly oblivious to the work of Taylor Swift, Forsythe’s heart melted when Spike and his class mates performed Shake it Off in animal costumes to the tune of a ukulele band at the end of first year of kindy.
Writing it into the script, it hooked Nyong’o in.
“It registered in Lupita’s life in a very important way,” he revealed.
“She had won the Oscar (for 12 Years) and was doing Star Wars over in London and suddenly found herself thrust into the stratosphere. She was struggling with it and a friend flew over to London to join her and ended up playing Shake it Off. She danced it out.”
They agreed Little Monsters needed the song to make it work.
After six months struggling to get the rights, one email from Nyong’o to Swift made it happen, and at a bargain price too.
Nyong’o then learned the ukulele in a few short weeks.
When she plays Shake it off in a pivotal scene that saves the kids, it’s a magical moment.
“Going out of her comfort zone is key to the type of actor she is,” Forsythe said.
“She needs to be challenged and she sang it so well. Her voice is beautiful.”
Also featuring Disney star Josh Gad (Frozen’s Olaf) as a potty-mouthed monster of the human kind, they all got on brilliantly and were adept at protecting the cast of five-year-olds from the darker aspects of the movie.
“The worst wasn’t the zombies,” Forsythe chuckled mischievously.
“It was more the horrific adult behaviour. How do you deal with Olaf yelling, “Shut the f— up and telling them that Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny aren’t real?”
Talk about monstrous!
Little Monsters screens as the MIFF Centrepiece movie, before enjoying a general release later this year