Lupita Nyong'o Makes Killing Zombies Fun in the Hulu Comedy 'Little Monsters'

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Sometimes a movie only needs one great scene to make it feel worth your time. For the most part, the Australian zombie comedy Little Monsters, which debuted at the 2019 Sundance Film Festival, is a retread of genre tropes, emotional beats, and satirical gags you've seen in other, better movies. Even with an Outback twist, the blend of wise-cracking and brain-eating feels derivative of Edgar Wright's Shaun of the Dead, a movie that's hard to imitate and even harder to top, and writer-director Abe Forsythe often struggles to calibrate the laughs with the kills.

Still, the movie has one completely dynamite sequence -- and it involves star Lupita Nyong'o chopping heads off with a shovel. Decked out in a bright yellow dress, her character, Miss Caroline, a Christian kindergarten teacher with a fondness for playing Taylor Swift songs on the ukulele and a gift for controlling unruly children, moves across the grassy landscape with purpose and determination as she swings the shovel at her undead attackers. She treats their bodies like bowling pins. Thwack, thwack, thwack. With each swing, pivot, and smash, she turns the video-game-like battle royal into a violent ballet. It's exhilarating.

Despite the buckets of blood spilled, the sequence never feels gratuitous or silly. In the context of the movie's story, which centers around heavy-metal-loving burnout Dave (Alexander England) learning to become less of a selfish asshole by protecting his niece and her classmates from a zombie attack during a field trip, Miss Caroline is only protecting her students from harm. To make them feel safe, she tells the kids in her class that the outbreak, which occurs after an experiment goes wrong at a nearby U.S. military base, is all part of an elaborate "game," like tag with grizzled innards and rotting brains. As she says later in the film with an icy, action-movie sense of purpose, "It's my job."

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Lupita Nyong’o in Black Panther | Walt Disney Pictures

Increasingly, kicking ass is Nyong'o's job -- and she's really good at it. After winning the Best Supporting Actress Oscar in 2013 for her role in 12 Years a Slave, she appeared in a handful of high-profile blockbusters, including parts in Star Wars: The Force Awakens, where she was hidden in a motion-capture CGI disguise, and The Jungle Book, where she was again cast in a non-human role as the white wolf Raksha. Neither movie really explored her action-hero potential. But last year, Black Panther gave her the chance to engage in some James Bond-like spycraft and John Wick-like combat as dexterous Wakandan undercover agent Nakia; the film's director, Ryan Coogler, has acknowledged the character has spin-off potential. And earlier this year, she had a dual role in Jordan Peele's doppelgänger action-thriller-horror movie Us.

Little Monsters, which was picked up by indie distributor Neon and streaming giant Hulu in a deal at the festival, looks like it will kick off an eclectic, adventurous few years for Nyong'o's. In December, she returns in Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker, and she's also signed up for genre fare like the spy ensemble thriller 355 and John Woo's remake of his Chow-Yun Fat action classic The Killer, which should give her ample opportunities to take out bad guys.

Though Little Monsters is unabashedly a comedy, which means lots of swearing around children, geek pop-culture references, and an unhinged turn from Josh Gad as a kiddie TV host with a dark side, the action moments are intense and visceral. They also give you a sense of where Nyong'o's career could go in the coming years. The role of Miss Caroline requires her to lop off heads, confess her love for Neil Diamond, and crack jokes about Hanson. It demands versatility and vulnerability. Even when the movie around her struggles to nail its mix of anarchic tones, she remains a voice of reason and a force of nature. Just give her a shovel and watch her go.

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Dan Jackson is a staff writer at Thrillist Entertainment. He's on Twitter @danielvjackson.