Unless they’ve started handing out merit badges for breast groping and butt chewing, don’t expect too many prizes for “Scouts Guide to the Zombie Apocalypse,” a witless undead retread served up as a vulgar revenge-of-the-dorks comedy. Taking a break after writing four back-to-back “Paranormal Activity” sequels (and directing one of them, 2014’s “The Marked Ones”), helmer Christopher Landon serves up a more straightforward slab of horror-comedy hackwork with this frenzied tale of three beige-uniformed buddies trying to fend off a small-town zombie outbreak. The Boy Scouts of America has understandably sought to distance itself from Paramount’s Oct. 30 release; with any luck, the vast majority of audiences will follow suit after some obligatory Halloween weekend biz.
With their junior year of high school fast approaching, kind-hearted Ben (Tye Sheridan) and horny, smart-alecky Carter (Logan Miller) feel it’s about time they stopped committing social suicide and quit the Scouts for good. They’ve stayed in their troupe mainly out of loyalty to their third amigo, Augie (Joey Morgan), a tubby, sensitive kid who lost his dad a few years earlier. A few campfire tears aside, however, “Scouts Guide to the Zombie Apocalypse” is not a movie excessively concerned with showing respect for the dead. That much is clear from a splatstick prologue detailing how the zombie epidemic began in a state-of-the-art science lab, then spread to infect nearby animals — including an enormous stag that refuses to stay dead even after Ben accidentally hits it with his car.
While this twist briefly raises the possibility of a new breed of wildlife-centric zombie freakout (“Fawn of the Dead,” anyone?), the script (which Landon co-wrote with Carrie Evans and Emi Mochizuki) instead veers into familiar, regressive adolescent male terrain. When Ben’s not making stammering small talk with his longtime crush, Kendall (Halston Sage), he finds himself torn between Augie, who seems happy to remain a Scout for the rest of his proudly unhip life, and Carter, who’s more interested in buying beer, scoring chicks and going to the cool-kids-only party that’s being held on the same night as the Scouts’ camping trip.
Feelings will be hurt and friendships changed forever. Still, there’s not much time to worry about that once the zombies begin their fast-moving takeover of the town, from the liquor store to the strip club, where the boys find an ally in Denise (Sarah Dumont), a smokin’ hot cocktail waitress who knows how to handle a shotgun. In perhaps the most telling detail in the movie’s press materials, Landon is quoted as describing Denise as both “a cool dude in a hot girl’s body” and “a strong female character,” which sounds marginally less appalling when you consider that the only other memorable women in the movie are a crotchety old cat lady (poor Cloris Leachman) and a zombified pole dancer whose gory head wound serves up a mid-movie money shot.
Their uniforms getting increasingly blood-soaked as the movie wends its way toward the end of its 92-minute running time, the three leads are appealing enough, particularly the sweet-faced Sheridan, hopefully enjoying a lowbrow change of pace after the art-film exertions of “The Tree of Life,” “Mud” and “Last Days in the Desert.” And David Koechner is a good sport as the boys’ hapless Scout leader, an early zombie casualty who spends most of the movie staggering around in burn makeup. Sadly, not even the presence of an “Anchorman” alum can jazz up what passes for comedy in “Scouts Guide to the Zombie Apocalypse” (feel free to nap through the impromptu Britney Spears sing-along).
The action is frenetic and often murkily lensed, the darkness unrelieved by so many incessant, ’80s-referencing lens flares you might think you were watching “Super 8,” as opposed to merely wishing you were watching “Super 8.” The inevitable zombie ambush at the party, shot under blacklights with pulsating strobe effects, is at once visually incoherent and weirdly gutless, as if the climax of “Carrie” had been fed through a paper shredder. Still, as much as the zombie subgenre has cannibalized itself in recent years, horror completists may well appreciate this movie for its specific gross-out innovations, which include one instance of undead cunnilingus, and a scene featuring a prosthetic penis that gets pulled apart like taffy. Now that’s one way to dismember a zombie.