The zombie horror genre’s now so well established that we don’t even need to be told the rules any more. Where characters would once yell to one another, “You gotta shoot ‘em in the head!”, it’s now taken as a given that the undead can only be killed by either dashing their brains out or dousing them in a generous amount of fire.
Scouts Guide To The Zombie Apocalypse is one such film; its characters are so aware they’re in the middle of a zombie movie, they don’t even waste time discussing how the army of ghouls invading their Californian town should be sent back to hell. As soon as the dead start to walk the earth, it’s open season.
Shot under the title Scouts Vs Zombies, before its producers no doubt realised that movies with “versus” in the title have been on a downward slide since Kramer Vs Kramer, Scouts Guide is an entertaining yet alarmingly familiar splicing of Superbad and Shaun Of The Dead.
Scouts Guide’s best scene is its first: a niftily-constructed set-up and pay-off involving a body-popping janitor at a medical research lab, sound-proofed glass and an apparently lifeless corpse. Brilliantly, it’s implied that the entire zombie apocalypse is all the fault of one malfunctioning vending machine. The sequence smartly establishes Scouts Guide’s devil-may-care attitude.
Next, we’re introduced to the trio of scouts, who’ve reached that age where wearing a biege uniform covered in badges is rapidly becoming a source of shame. Childhood friends Ben (Mud and Joe actor Tye Sheridan) and Carter (Logan Miller) have agreed to go on a camping expedition in the middle of the woods, guided by their wig-wearing Scout Leader Rogers (the wonderful David Koechner), but only to avoid upsetting their old pal Augie (Joey Morgan) who hasn’t quite reached the age where drinking and partying suddenly seem more interesting than rubbing sticks together to make a fire. While Augie’s preparing for a night under the stars, Ben and Carter plan to sneak off and meet some much cooller school kids for a midnight party – but right on cue, a zombie outbreak throws everybody’s plans through a loop.
What begins as an amusing riff on 28 Days Later – these are the fast, “infected” undead, not the shambling Romero kind – soon takes in nods to numerous other horror films past, including, perhaps unintentionally, the 80s chiller, Vamp. As Ben and Carter fend off zombies in a strip joint not unlike the one Grace Jones cavorted in 30 years ago, it’s easy to wonder why it’s taken so long to make this kind of ribald teen zombie flick when the vampire genre has long since been sucked dry in a similar fashion.
At any rate, Ben and Carter make friends with Denise (Sarah Dumont), a cocktail waitress who wears short shorts and carries a shotgun. She’s a somewhat two-dimensional yet welcome presence, leading the bickering teens through a ghost-train ride of loosely-connected set-pieces. There’s a likeable chemistry between the leads, but it can’t mask the reality that director and co-writer Christopher Landon’s story falls back a little too readily on genre cliches. It’s easy to guess who’ll become a zombie and who won’t, and there’s a love interest for Ben, Carter’s sister Kendall (Halston Sage) who looks like she’s walked out of a Vogue photo shoot. The horror genre staples carry over to the humour, which is sharp enought to provoke a few laughs but is also familiar from other, classic movies – Re-Animator, in particular, seems to be the source of several gross-out gags.
The most surprising thing about Scouts Guide is that it doesn’t do a great deal with its scouting premise. What might have been a kind of zombified Deliverance, with a bunch of kids fending off the undead with sharpened sticks in the middle of a forest clearing or something, soon diverts into more typical urban territory: characters running in terror from raging hordes, backing away from reaching hands, slamming doors just in the nick of time, and so on. Even some of Scouts Guide’s most original ideas aren’t fully followed through; there’s a quite interesting running joke involving zombies and music which is set up but never fully explored.
There’s one scene where we see a bunch of characters suit up with some improvised weapons, a throw-away reference to similar sequence in Schwarzenegger’s Commando or Stallone’s Rambo movies. It’s here, as the movie appears to reference Capcom’s Dead Rising franchise, that Scouts Guide’s inherent problem comes into focus: it’s a videogame-like thrill-ride, and nothing more. The characters, sight-gags and splashes of gore are enough to entertain in the moment, but Scouts Guide’s too lightweight, too ephemeral, to really stick in the memory. Once the zombies shuffle into view, it’s lock and load, and the rest of the movie writes itself.
Scouts Guide To The Zombie Apocalypse is out in UK cinemas on the 6th November.