Say "Hello" to the Zom Rom Com: 'Warm Bodies'

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.

Warm Bodies

Director: Jonathan Levine
Cast: Nicholas Hoult, Teresa Palmer, John Malkovich, Rob Corddry, Dave Franco, Cory Hardrict, Analeigh Tipton
Rated: PG-13
Studio: Summit Entertainment
Year: 2013
US date: 2013-02-01 (General release)
UK date: 2012-02-01 (General release)

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.


In the wake of Malcolm Young's passing, Jesse Fink, author of The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC, offers up his top 10 AC/DC songs, each seasoned with a dash of backstory.

Editor's Note: Originally published 30 July 2014.

10. “Bedlam in Belgium”
(Flick of the Switch, 1983)

This is a massively underrated barnstormer from the boys off the much-maligned (unfairly, I think) Flick of the Switch. The album was missing Mutt Lange, but the Youngs did have his very capable engineer, Tony Platt, as co-producer in the studio at Compass Point in the Bahamas. Tony’s a real pro. I think he did a perfectly fine job on this album, which also features the slamming “Nervous Shakedown”.

But what I find most interesting about “Bedlam in Belgium” is that it’s based on a fracas that broke out on stage in Kontich, Belgium, in 1977, involving Bon Scott, the rest of the band, and the local authorities. AC/DC had violated a noise curfew and things got hairy.

Yet Brian Johnson, more than half a decade later, wrote the lyrics with such insight; almost as if he was the one getting walloped by the Belgian police: He gave me a crack in the back with his gun / Hurt me so bad I could feel the blood run. Cracking lyrics, Bon-esque. Unfortunately for Brian, he was removed from lyric-writing duties from The Razors Edge (1990) onwards. All songs up to and including 2008’s Black Ice are Young/Young compositions.

Who’ll be writing the songs on the new album AC/DC has been working on in Vancouver? AC/DC fans can’t wait to hear them. Nor can I.

9. “Spellbound”
(For Those About to Rock We Salute You, 1981)

"Spellbound" really stands as a lasting monument to the genius of Mutt Lange, a man whose finely tuned ear and attention to detail filed the rough edges of Vanda & Young–era AC/DC and turned this commercially underperforming band for Atlantic Records into one of the biggest in the world. On “Spellbound” AC/DC sounds truly majestic. Lange just amplifies their natural power an extra notch. It’s crisp sounding, laden with dynamics and just awesome when Angus launches into his solo.

“Spellbound” is the closer on For Those About to Rock We Salute You, the last album Lange did with AC/DC, so chronologically it’s a significant song; it marks the end of an important era. For Those About to Rock was an unhappy experience for a lot of people. There was a lot of blood being spilled behind the scenes. It went to number one in the US but commercially was a massive disappointment after the performance of Back in Black. Much of the blame lies at the feet of Atlantic Records, then under Doug Morris, who made the decision to exhume an album they’d shelved in 1976, Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap, and release it in-between Back in Black and For Those About to Rock.

In the book Phil Carson, who signed AC/DC to Atlantic, calls it “one of the most crass decisions ever made by a record-company executive” and believes it undermined sales of For Those About to Rock.

8. “Down Payment Blues”
(Powerage, 1978)

This is one of the best songs off Powerage -- perhaps the high point of Bon Scott as a lyricist -- but also significant for its connection to “Back in Black”. There are key lines in it: Sitting in my Cadillac / Listening to my radio / Suzy baby get on in / Tell me where she wanna go / I'm living in a nightmare / She's looking like a wet dream / I got myself a Cadillac / But I can't afford the gasoline.

Bon loved writing about Cadillacs. He mentions them in “Rocker” off the Australian version of TNT and the international release of Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap: Got slicked black hair / Skin tight jeans / Cadillac car and a teenage dream.

Then you get to “Back in Black”. Bon’s dead but the lyrics have this spooky connection to “Down Payment Blues”: Back in the back / Of a Cadillac / Number one with a bullet, I’m a power pack.

Why was Brian singing about riding around in Cadillacs? He’d just joined AC/DC, wasn’t earning a lot and was on his best behavior. Bon had a reason to be singing about money. He was writing all the songs and just had a breakthrough album with Highway to Hell. Which begs the question: Could Bon also have written or part written the lyrics to “Back in Black”?

Bon’s late mother Isa said in 2006: “The last time we saw him was Christmas ’79, two months before he died. [Bon] told me he was working on the Back in Black album and that that was going to be it; that he was going to be a millionaire.”

7. “You Shook Me All Night Long”
(Back in Black, 1980)

Everyone knows and loves this song; it’s played everywhere. Shania Twain and Celine Dion have covered it. It’s one of AC/DC’s standbys. But who wrote it?

Former Mötley Crüe manager Doug Thaler is convinced Bon Scott, who’d passed away before the album was recorded, being replaced by Brian Johnson, wrote the lyrics. In fact he told me, “You can bet your life that Bon Scott wrote the lyrics to ‘You Shook Me All Night Long’.” That’s a pretty strong statement from a guy who used to be AC/DC’s American booking agent and knew the band intimately. I look into this claim in some depth in the book and draw my own conclusions.

I’m convinced Bon wrote it. In my opinion only Bon would have written a line like “She told me to come but I was already there.” Brian never matched the verve or wit of Bon in his lyrics and it’s why I think so much of AC/DC’s mid-'80s output suffers even when the guitar work of the Youngs was as good as it ever was.

But what’s also really interesting about this song in light of the recent hullabaloo over Taurus and Led Zeppelin is how much the opening guitar riff sounds similar to Head East’s “Never Been Any Reason”. I didn’t know a hell of a lot about Head East before I started working on this book, but came across “Never Been Any Reason” in the process of doing my research and was blown away when I heard it for the first time. AC/DC opened for Head East in Milwaukee in 1977. So the two bands crossed paths.

6. “Rock ’N’ Roll Damnation”
(Powerage, 1978)

It’s hard to get my head around the fact Mick Wall, the British rock writer and author of AC/DC: Hell Ain’t a Bad Place to Be, called this “a two-bit piece of head-bopping guff.” Not sure what track he was listening to when he wrote that -- maybe he was having a bad day -- but for me it’s one of the last of AC/DC’s classic boogie tracks and probably the best.

Mark Evans loves it almost as much as he loves “Highway to Hell". It has everything you want in an AC/DC song plus shakers, tambourines and handclaps, a real Motown touch that George Young and Harry Vanda brought to bear on the recording. They did something similar with the John Paul Young hit “Love Is in the Air”. Percussion was an underlying feature of many early AC/DC songs. This one really grooves. I never get tired of hearing it.

“Rock ’n’ Roll Damnation” was AC/DC’s first hit in the UK charts and a lot of the credit has to go to Michael Klenfner, best known as the fat guy with the moustache who stops Jake and Elwood backstage in the final reel of The Blues Brothers and offers them a recording contract. He was senior vice-president at Atlantic at the time, and insisted the band go back and record a radio-worthy single after they delivered the first cut of Powerage to New York.

Michael was a real champion of AC/DC behind the scenes at Atlantic, and never got the recognition he was due while he was still alive (he passed away in 2009). He ended up having a falling out with Atlantic president Jerry Greenberg over the choice of producer for Highway to Hell and got fired. But it was Klenfner who arguably did more for the band than anyone else while they were at Atlantic. His story deserves to be known by the fans.

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