Written by: Jonathan Levine (screenplay), Isaac Marion (novel)
Directed by: Jonathan Levine
Starring: Nicholas Hoult, Teresa Palmer, and Rob Corddry
Reviewed by: Brett Gallman
Weíre only about four weeks into 2013, and the mere idea of Warm Bodies has me tempted to complain that the horror genreís been overrun with zombies lately. Hell, even zom-coms have been done (ahem) to death at this point. That Iím (mostly) sparing you that spiel says a lot about Warm Bodies; appropriately enough, itís an undead film about revitalization, and it pulls off a pretty tall task by pumping some new blood into a moribund genre. It does so not only with laughs but with real, genuine heartóthis is a genuinely sweet film, whereas most zombie films only feature sweet eviscerations and disembowelments.
Warm Bodies has a little bit of those, too, but itís centered on a protagonist whoíd rather you look away when heís forced to do it. See, R (Nicholas Hoult) has been shuffling around for a zombie for as long as he can remember (which isnít very long). Along with his fellow undead, he shuffles around the airport and occasionally has fleeting memories of his previous life. His inner monologues reveal a normal guy who just happens to be trapped in an undead body; he doesnít really want to feed on people, but he has to. One day, he descends upon one of the last outposts of humanity, where he bumps into Julie (Teresa Palmer), and he immediately falls in love with heróbut not before devouring her boyfriend (Dave Franco). Smitten with her, he canít bring himself to do the same to Julia, so he abducts her to his little abode, and he proceeds to do awkward, dorky stuff, like play his record collection. That heís dead just seems to make it extra awkward.
At first, this seems to be the movieís one-note joke, which would be fine because itís a pretty good one. Hoult and Palmer have great chemistry (considering the circumstances, itís sort of amazing they have any chemistry), and the two make for an endearing couple. R is particularly compelling as a protagonist; while there have been some low-budget, indie attempts at delivering a zombie movie from this perspective, this is the first mainstream one that I can really recall here lately, and it pulls it off admirably. His inner musings are witty and observant, and heís kind of affably disaffected; at times, Warm Bodies is another angsty, young-adult ennui movie, which is usually ripe for bullshit (but also something Iím kind of drawn to, so go figure). Thereís not a lot of that to be found hereóperhaps itís a little twee and cute, but it also seems pretty pure, especially since it takes the kernel of its conflict and blows it up to something meaningful and maybe even a little allegorical.
While it seems like there isnít a whole lot of room for this premise to go, it heads into some rather unexpected directions. R and Julieís relationship is obviously forbidden (and their names serve as an obvious reference to reinforce that fact), but the wrinkle here is maybe it doesnít have to be. Upon meeting Julie, something is awakened in Rósuddenly, thereís a little bit of a glimmer in his eye and a little more spring in his shuffle. Weíre used to seeing the dead return to life in zombie films, but not quite like this. Before long, Rís undead status is sort of incidental, as Julie really warms up to him, and the big conflict arises in the form of her hard-ass dad (John Malkovich), who posits himself as a savior of humanity and shoots any walking corpse on sight. On the other hand, it turns out that zombies arenít really the worst thing in this apocalyptic wasteland, as even they have to flee from ďbonies,Ē their fellow undead creatures who have been stripped of all flesh and moral conflict and will chow down on anything with meat on its bones.
Watching these various conflicts play out is pretty triumphant; so many zombie movies are content to just recycle the Romero mantra that dictates zombies arenít truly evil, but Warm Bodies really explores and plays with that notion. Not only are they not evilótheyíre pretty swell, and are, in fact, just like us (only a little deader). And maybe if we werenít such assholes, the world would be a better placeóeven during a zombie apocalypse. Simplistic, obvious stuff? Maybe, but Warm Bodies admirably wears its heart on its sleeve, which allows it to get away with its on-the-nose sappiness and obvious sentiment. This is probably the last thing you expect to hear about a zombie movie, where the goal is often centered around gore porn as filmmakers attempt to devise various new and inventive methods of dispatching both humans and zombies.
Instead, this film accomplishes the exact opposite by crafting a bunch of peopleóand zombiesóthat you want to see survive. In addition to the fine lead characters, you also have Rob Corddry as M, Rís buddy that he occasionally attempts to converse with. Even deadened as a zombie, Corddry proves to be one of the funniest people on the planet, and heís even playing a genuinely likeable undead guy here (whereas you have to begrudgingly like him as Lou, the cretin with a heart of gold in Hot Tub Time Machine). Between Corddry and Hoult, the film offers something a little bit different in that their performances require them to slowly come to life, which is the opposite of how it usually goes. The two pull it off quite well, and the film really starts to click once R especially becomes more human and you realize just what the movie is up to. The other big zombie movie wrinkle involves Rís ability to live vicariously through his victimsí memories by eating their brains; this allows Francoís character to appear throughout the film as the various flashbacks flesh out the human characters and their backstories.
For a movie centered around the undead, Warm Bodies is pretty life-affirming. A welcome antithesis to the drudgery and gloom found in The Walking Dead and its ilk, itís quaint and sweet; maybe itís a little slight and fluffy, but itís actually affecting, which is a rare thing for this type of material. Director Jonathan Levine (who recently directed the similarly warm-hearted 50/50*) treats an absurd premise with just the right amount of reverenceóthis is a silly story, but its heart is definitely in the right place (which in this case means itís perfectly intact rather than splattered all over the screen). Just making a zombie movie that feels fresh is tough enough, so kudos to everyone involved for doing that and pulling it off. I know itís only February, but Iíd be surprised if thereís a more delightful genre offering this year. Buy it!
*Maybe this will also spur someone to finally pick up Levineís All the Boys Love Mandy Lane, which premiered all the way back in 2006 but hasnít been released in the United States.
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