After a decade and change of high-volume parody, deconstruction, and genre melding, the zombie canon might not have much territory left unexplored. Still, you want to believe that any new attempt to send up the world of the living dead approaches the endeavor with an iota of originality, providing new twists, or unheralded affections. “Scouts Guide to the Zombie Apocalypse” will test your optimism.
That the film makes haste of unleashing its paranormal endemic—thrusting teenaged Scouts Ben (Tye Sheridan) and Carter (Logan Miller) from their typical high school preoccupations into the midst of a mission to save the latter’s sister (Halston Sage) from zombie attacks—doesn’t immediately feel like a warning sign of anything other than an appreciation for brevity. But soon enough, it begins to look as though the movie has a different motivation for skirting conversation on the issue: It doesn’t seem all that interested in zombies.
This fatal flaw becomes clearer and clearer the more ‘Scouts Guide’ betrays its absence of science fiction logic. It picks and chooses applications from popular zombie lore, happily breaking its own rules and abandoning behavioral establishments that, at earlier points, seemed mighty important. In fact, the only discernible interest the film has in its zombies concerns their sexual organs. Viewers should prepare for four spotlighted set piece gags about zombie sex, nudity, or genitalia.
You can get away with explaining the carnal fascination of ‘Scouts Guide’ as apropos of the teenaged boy demographic from whose perspective the film carries out, but that doesn’t make its excess any more tolerable. Sooner than later, loudmouth Carter’s onslaught of hacky sexual euphemisms—and, believe it or not, a “Borat” reference—will make you wonder (along with what year this movie was written) how long it’ll be until his zombie-induced demise.
Even when breaking from this theme, the movie’s sense of humor remains uninspired. Though admirably game and occasionally endearing, Joey Morgan and David Koechner—as the boys’ fellow Scout and troop leader, respectively—are relegated to a Dolly Parton-scored set piece that both demands and suffers from being reminiscent of the Queen sequence from “Shaun of the Dead.” Unfair, but unavoidable.
To call the comedy tired or lazy would be doing it the favor of ignoring its much greater vice: its misogyny. Living and dead women alike play willing subjects to the male gaze as demanded by both the would-be laughs and emotional story of ‘Scouts Guide.’ This is made especially clear by the function of Sarah Dumont, who enters the picture as the boys’ badass savior Denise.
Her jaded demeanor and skills with a shotgun are explained, as if any other rationale would be too far-fetched, by the influences of ex-boyfriends. She is never asked to account for her own friends, family, or self-interest when joining Ben and Carter on their quest to save theirs. Even if you’re willing to accept that she’s simply a loner with a saintly heart, that doesn’t account for her time spent, mid-peril, giving Ben kissing lessons to impress his longtime crush, Carter’s sister.
Wisely, ‘Scouts Guide’ invests its emotionality less in Ben’s romantic arc than it does in his and Carter’s friendship with devoted Scout and established dweeb Augie (Morgan). The few moments of appreciable tenderness derive from the inherently charming Sheridan’s character’s guilt over outgrowing their paltry Scout troop and Augie’s resultant pangs of abandonment.
If you’re not too undone by agitation with Carter’s umpteenth quip about the female body, you may even work up a smile over some of these sweeter moments involving the uniformed trio. However, you’ll leave ‘Scouts Guide’ unable to remember where the boys’ emotional journey coalesced with the horror theme. This apparent ambivalence for the genre is especially shocking when you know that director Christopher Landon’s filmography so far includes four “Paranormal Activity” movies.
Nevertheless, the film’s zombies of are infrequently more than incidental. They’re a recognizable threat that show up intermittently between bawdy jokes and manifestations of adolescent fantasies to give the boys and their attractive, purely reactionary tagalong something to run away from, fight, or watch disrobe. If that last one—which, really, is the top priority of the lot—seems like strong ample foundation for a zombie comedy, then ‘Scouts Guide’ might not let you down after all. [D]