Nicholas Hoult, Teresa Palmer, John Malkovich, Rob Corddry, Dave Franco, Cory Hardrict, Analeigh Tipton
(Summit Entertainment; US theatrical: 1 Feb 2013 (General release); UK theatrical: 1 Feb 2012 (General release); 2013)
It seemed inevitable, what with Twilight taking in more money than any significantly mediocre monster romance sans style and panache should. Stephanie Meyers’ middling prose, meshed with a global audience of gullible readers, lead Hollywood to embrace the vampire embarrassment to the point of preposterousness. Since then, we’ve had attempts at turning fairy tales (Red Riding Hood) into similarly subtexted fables of forbidden love, while other young adult titles have been perused for potential quixotic fear franchise fodder. Now comes Warm Bodies, a movie that, on its surface, appears to take the zombie category in the same, syrupy direction. Luckily, this fine film discards the dopiness to become a sharp, sometimes affecting look at lovers crossed by more than stars. Indeed, being undead can put a significant cramp in your guy/gal playa game.
R (Nicholas Hoult) is a zombie living in a 747 at an abandoned airport near a walled up city. He spends his days wandering around, thinking about his foggy past and associating with “friends” like M (Rob Corddry). Occasionally, the brood goes to the fortified metropolis, hoping to discover some food. During one trip, R attacks and eats the brains of a boy named Perry (Dave Franco). At the same time, he becomes smitten with his victim’s girlfriend, Julie (Teresa Palmer). Convincing her to come with him, he slowly starts to regain some speech. Soon, the two form an unlikely bond. Of course, there are still complications for this relationship, like hordes of the walking dead, as well as “Bonies” - zombies that have rotted away to the point of skeletal brutality. With her military minded father (John Malkovich) desperate to find her and R becoming more and more human, Julie realizes she’s in love. Too bad the rest of living society believes her new boyfriend should be destroyed, not doted over.
It’s weird how Warm Bodies works. It shouldn’t and yet it sparkles (*wink*). Part of the success comes from director Jonathan Levine. While The Wackness left some viewers supremely frustrated, efforts like 50/50 and All The Boys Love Mandy Lane argue for his ability to handle cinematic archetypes (the disease of the week and slasher genres, respectively) with style and skill. Here, the filmmaker finds the right balance between humor and (trying to beat) heart while never losing sight of the need to keeps things fresh and inventive. Granted, some of can be found in Isaac Marion’s source novel, but Levine takes enough liberties with the text to transform the film into one of the best romantic comedies in recent years. It’s like (500) Days of Summer with flesh eating, or George Romero’s Day of the Dead in which Dr. Logan’s ‘experiment,’ a ‘trained’ corpse named Bub, becomes a literal ladies man.
Yes, this movie messes with the zombie mythology. We discover that corpses eat brains for food as well as the feeling of being “human” again. Since the mind contains our personality and memories, this allows the monsters to consume and then revisit their - or at the very least, another’s - living past. Similarly, eating the brains spars the victim a future as a member of the living dead. Indeed, these creatures apparently have a moral streak running through their instinctual actions. When they can, they will spare the victim their sad fate. Also, the Bonies are an intriguing addition, representing a “threat that has given up” aggression that the film desperately needs. While it walks a fine line between fear and funny, the former is often an afterthought. With the Bonies, we get some scares, as well as a non-human menace that the movie can trade on.
The real stars however…are the real stars. Hoult, who many might remember as Hugh Grant’s reluctant charge in the affecting About a Boy (he is also a main feature in the new X-Men reboots) does a great Romero shuffle. We sense he is still a zombie, though he is required to evolve over the course of the storyline. Similarly, Ms. Palmer must play both horrified and curious, her affection for R growing as her understanding of the undead problem and process grows. There is a bit of a glitch in the third act, a moment of communal recognition that seems to suggest something that is never really explained (or explained successfully) and R’s overall transformation seems a bit rushed, as if the studios wanted the movie to clock in at 90 minutes, and Levine agreed. But we still fall for this pair and wish them well.
Indeed, the one thing going against this film is its rush to resolution. We could have used more of the zombie set-up, more of the way in which R, via carefully considered thoughts, explained this weird new world to us. He’s a bit of a hoarder and more could have been done with the items he collects. Malkovich is merely a despotic given, not truly rationalized. He is good, just not given a plot place. Similarly, when experiencing Perry’s memories, there would have been ample opportunity to fill in a lot of the blanks. Since the movie is already streamlining the novel, taking such shortcuts would be forgivable. But Warm Bodies appears far more interested in love than logistics and by the end we have wound up on its side. We do eventually feel for R, want he and Julie to find a way to make things work, and accept the bizarro ‘deus ex macabre-machina’ way in which things are resolved.
This isn’t a game changer in the way Zack Snyder’s Dawn of the Dead was (hello, fast moving members of the undead), or the joyful reinvention of the horror comedy ala Zombieland. Instead, Warm Bodies want to invest the ailing Rom Com with a whole new kind of blood(shed). This isn’t the twee twaddle of Twilight. There are no morbid leads making meek cow eyes at each other. Instead, Jonathan Levine gives us a couple of characters we really come to care for. One of them just happens to be a standard movie monster. Thankfully, R is a much better horror heartthrob than his natty neckbiter cousin.