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Little Monsters and Abe Forsythe’s “optimistic” zombie accident

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Abe Forsythe didn’t mean to make a zombie movie. Coming off the back of Down Under (2016), a pitch black comedy about the Cronulla Riots, few people expected him to make a zombie movie either. Yet the 38-year-old actor, writer, director, producer, editor, probable magician, has made a career out of doing the unexpected: whether it was his directorial debut at just 18, Ned (2003), or an optimistic zom-rom-com in Little Monsters (2019).

“I didn’t intentionally say ‘oh, I want to make a zombie movie’,” said Forsythe. “It just so happened that I was at a time in my life where I was writing about everything my son had taught me. Having it articulated through a story with zombies in it made sense.” It has clearly made sense to audiences too, with Little Monsters having its world premiere at the Sundance Film Festival back in January and Forsythe spending much of 2019 “travelling the world with this movie”. Playing in Australia for the first time at the Melbourne International Film Festival Centrepiece Gala in August, local audiences are now getting a chance to see it as it opens theatrically across the nation today, on Halloween (appropriately).

It’s an important moment for the Sydney local, who shot the film across his home city with majority of the undead extras locals themselves. “They were f—king incredible,” he said. “The last two days of the shoot were the hottest days of that year: I think it was 45’C. They stuck it out with us to the end. All the zombies that we had were so, so good and so committed.”

Little Monsters follows kindergarten teacher Miss Caroline (Academy Award-winner Lupita Nyong’o) and washed-up musician Dave (Alexander England) who are forced to work together to protect a class of school children from a horde of zombies during a field trip gone wrong. That’s the plot in a nutshell, but of course like most things Forsythe does it’s more layered than that.

Little Monsters director Abe Forsythe on set with actress Lupita Nyong'o

Lupita Nyong'o (Miss Caroline) on set with director Abe Forsythe.

“With Ned, certainly I think that was kind of going ‘why do we hold this person up as such a hero?’ when at the end of the day they were just a murdering cattle thief: that was his intention and that’s what he did,” Forsythe said, noting that it’s “bizarre” to look back at a movie that was conceived from his teenage brain. “But he got mythologised because of the helmet and a bunch of other things. Down Under and Little Monsters do have some similarities, but the biggest difference between them is obviously Down Under is very pessimistic and Little Monsters is very intentionally optimistic. They were conceived at very different times … I mean, I wrote Down Under three weeks after I found out I was going to be a father and was questioning what kind of world I was bringing him into. That was just me and all my worries particularly related to our country, things I felt like we hadn’t dealt with, and obviously we still haven’t dealt with. I wanted to make something that dared audiences to laugh and then when they did laugh, at the end of the movie punish them for laughing as well to say ‘we shouldn’t actually be finding this funny because it’s not, it’s really deadly serious’.”

Lupita Nyong'o in a yellow dress wielding a shovel with three zombies behind her

Little Monsters, on the flip side, is undeadly serious. Like Ned and Down Under, it’s dealing with a fairly serious subject in a uniquely Australian way: by taking the piss. Although that’s a very specific Aussie lens, Forsythe said it’s one international audiences have responded to. “Genre in Australia – look, it’s hard making anything in Australia – but I think it’s hard making genre in particular. It’s disappointing, because I think with the ‘Australian take’ Australians do genre as good as anywhere in the world. Whether it’s Greg McLean and the kind of movies he made with Wolf Creek or Mad Max: Fury Road being an extreme example. It’s one of my favourite movies and it’s a movie that has so much scale but also at the same time is so Australian in its character. That’s what I hope to do and am continuing to try to do: make movies here in Australia that can play internationally and don’t lose that sense of what makes us unique. Because I have seen taking this movie around the world this year, people really respond to an Australian point of view on something they’ve seen in a movie before – like zombies.”

Little Monsters is releasing during a time where the walking dead are at – as Forsythe puts it – “saturation point”. Yet rather than that being detrimental to the film, he considers it helpful. “You have the benefit of not needing to explain beyond are they fast or are they slow,” he said, with Stephen Peacocke making a cameo appearance in the film to illustrate this exact point. “But also, zombies do represent the horrors of the world trying to take our innocence from us. That’s the very obvious metaphor of having five-year-old kids needing to be protected by Miss Caroline from the zombies.”

Part of the added benefit of the undead as a supernatural movie monster is their versatility: one zombie movie can be about climate change and centring the female narrative, The Girl With All The Gifts (2016), while another can be about racism in America, Night Of The Living Dead (1968), and coincidentally one of Forsythe’s favourites. “I know what zombies mean for me, quite specifically, but the good thing about them being such a blank canvas is it has been fun seeing people interpret what they mean,” he said. “It can mean anything to anyone and they’re no less right than my reasons for having them in there. I saw Dawn Of The Dead (1978) when I was probably eight-years-old, but George Romero was the first person who introduced me to the idea that you can make something about something else. Obviously that film being about consumerism was great and that was a really eye-opening thing for me to realise the capabilities and power of genre. I don’t think that’s realised enough in the space.”  

- Maria Lewis

Little Monsters is currently playing in Australian theatres.

Maria Lewis is a best-selling author, screenwriter and journalist. Her fifth book The Wailing Woman is out now.