A maniacal killer slowly making their way through a camping party of teenagers is a timeless trope. Friday the 13th managed to build an entire franchise on this simple but effective fear. However, this cliché is rarely twisted to the point that it feels fresh. The attempt to create an original camp slasher is the driving force behind What’s Eating Todd, and it attempts to do so by throwing in another familiar, albeit well-trodden trope: zombies.
What’s Eating Todd starts as it means to go on – simply. A group of teenagers embarks on a camping trip near an abandoned factory for the titular Todd’s birthday. The cast of weed-smoking, tequila-drinking teenagers is made up of frat boys, along with Todd’s camping-phobic girlfriend Valerie, and grizzled Uncle Carl. Each character walks the fine line between unlikable and witty that chimes perfectly with the teen horror movies of the early ’00s.
Night-time comes and Uncle Carl starts telling the unwitting teens the tale of what happened in the factory thirty years earlier when a ‘flesh-eating maniac’ slaughtered everyone there. As is the way with any campfire story, the killer still stalks those grounds today. You can see where this is going – Todd goes missing and our debauched teens are forced to fight for their lives in order to survive the night. They slowly come to realise that the flesh-eating killer is actually Todd, now a murderous, shambling zombie.
On paper, this all sounds rather run-of-the-mill, but What’s Eating Todd is a surprisingly refreshing entry to this crowded genre. The main weapon the filmmakers use to set it apart is to combine different styles and genres, resulting in a strange but endearing mash-up of sensibilities. What’s Eating Todd feels like a teen comedy, a survival horror, a slasher, and a found footage film all at the same time. The latter effect is achieved using the GoPro gifted to Todd, and is largely used to provide point -of-view kills, but it’s effective all the same.
One moment the characters will be drinking, joking and storytelling around a campfire with a back and forth of innuendo, and the next they are running for their lives from a poacher who thinks they’re the killer. It is a simple technique, but it serves its purpose by keeping the audience on their toes, lulling them into a false sense of security before confronting them with danger.
This is particularly effective when combined with the filmmaker’s decision to not show too much of the undead killer. What we do get to experience involves some very impressive zombie makeup, especially in the opening scenes, as well as some solid suspense building.
The multi-tonal approach doesn’t always work to the film’s advantage, though. By relying so heavily on recognisable tropes, What’s Eating Todd features every cliché in the book, and it’s hard to tell if this is part of a greater joke or if it’s just lazy.
The shifts in tone can also be extremely jarring and out of place, with a single sequence going from the chilling campfire stories and tension-building to a character using the camcorders to shoot his own skateboarding video. This scene is never really explained and remains the strangest part of a film that already features a ‘haunted tunnel’ and a zombie virus that infects the host via a swarm of flies.
That said, when the film gets going, it goes at breakneck speed and keeps the same tone throughout the third act. The ending is a little rushed, however. After spending a bit too long playing on the teen love angle, it leans far too heavily into teen angst and leaves the movie with an entirely pointless final two minutes. While it’s fun to watch the tropes get played with, the writing slips into a strange hybrid of after-school-special and American Pie far too often.
What’s Eating Todd isn’t the most ground-breaking entry to the zombie genre, and it often trips up in its own attempts to subvert or play on recognisable tropes. Fortunately, it does enough to give us an enjoyable teen zombie movie that is self-aware enough to have fun with itself and keep you on your toes.