“Jesus, these guys look awful.” Wandering through an airport at the start of Warm Bodies, R (Nicholas Hoult) observes his fellow wanderers. They do look awful, but not because they’re hurrying to gates or poking at cellphones. They look awful because they’re dead. Their necks are veiny, their eyes hollow, their skin greying. R doesn’t say much about how he and his fellows came to be zombies, only lists possible scenarios: maybe it was nuclear war, or maybe a radioactive outbreak monkey. He can’t remember, much as he’s forgotten his name. He thinks it begins with an R.
He doesn’t have to remember, because you do. You’ve seen the movies that explained zombies—here called corpses—you know they need to be shot in the head, that they tend to stumble about in clothes they were wearing when they died (“My hoodie would suggest I was unemployed,” notes R), that they eat flesh, and also, that they move very slowly. As he and a pack of friends trudge out of the airport in search of food, R makes the joke you’re already thinking, that “This could take a while.” R’s self-knowing in the midst of so much lack of knowing is Warm Bodies’ primary bit. Whether he’s stumbling past abandoned vehicles or chewing a recent victim’s brains, he’s also describing what he’s not feeling, what he doesn’t remember, and what he wishes he could.
All this longing finds some helpful correlatives in the film, less objective than sentimental. Though you and R don’t know what the other corpses do on their own, so you don’t know how like or unlike them he may be, the movie suggests he is very different, not only confessional and chatty (in his head, anyway), but also fond of stuff. On a plane where he spends his alone time, R keeps action figures and pictures, records and a turntable (he prefers vinyl because it sounds “more alive”). These may or may not serve the function of memories for R; they certainly do for you. He likes John Waite and Springsteen: really, how much more wholesome could this zombie boy be?
R’s longing makes him ripe for romantic love, which he’ll find in the form of the still human girl Julie (Teresa Palmer). Their courtship begins badly, when he and his lurching-sometimes-leaping pack, including his best friend M (Rob Corddry), attack her and her heavily armed team of humans, including her straight blade of a boyfriend, Perry (Dave Franco). The first encounter ends with R not eating Julie but instead kidnapping her and dragging her back to his plane; she notes the oddity of this move, but agrees to stay with him until it’s “safe”—as he puts it—for her to leave, which means, never, for there are always corpses ambling on the tarmac, equipped with a powerful sense of smell so as to track down live humans.
Before you can say “Beauty and the Beast” (or maybe, “Luke and Laura”), Julie begins so see something attractive in R. per formula, this something is premised at least in part on her strained relationship with her dad, the odious General Grigio (John Malkovich), who lost his beloved wife to corpses and so bears a grudge. His plan to keep his human survivors “safe” is based on shooting anything that’s not human (as R describes the situation, “Everybody and their grandmother is trying to shoot you in the head”). Julie is the rebellious daughter who wants to change the world, not accept and reinforce it, to see zombies—or at least her zombie—as like her rather than not like her. It helps her case that R is developing a pulse, such that the emotional changes usually ordained by romance here find a physical correlative, a literal heartbeat.
In this, the romance follows on filmmaker Jonathan Levine’s previous filmic interests, All the Boys Love Mandy Lane, The Wackness, and even 50/50, all concerned with outsider boys finding some semblance of insiderness with a girl, however odd their match might appear. Here R and Julie take turns saving each other, in confrontations punctuated by guns and martial arts moves and gnashing teeth. Each does a stint posing as a member of the other’s pack: her zombie performance features over-eager careening and arm-flailing, with a modicum of groaning to boot (R cautions her to “take it down”). And his turn as a live human involves a shower and makeup, a comic respite that begins with R’s rejection of such girly-gay disguising.
In fights and in disguises, the movie underscores its moral (don’t judge someone who looks other, or more specifically, “awful”), in a way that’s at once clever and geeky, meta and referential, the next step movie from Zombieland. Now that zombies are redeemable, the parallel strategies of head-shooting and brains-eating take on a kind of equivalence; it helps too that the film provides a common opponent for both humans and corpses, so they might bond over killing an other other, a pack of creatures who lack speech or thought or even the chance of a pulse. At least until the next step movie.