“This is a corpse infected with the plague. It is uncaring, unfeeling.”
When it comes to the overwhelming majority of zombie fiction, it’s all about brains. (Or rather, BRAAAINS!!!) It’s what the undead hunger for, and a well-placed headshot is usually the only way to kill them (again). And that doesn’t even cover the popular device of using the walking dead as an allegory for an increasingly mindless society. Warm Bodies stands out because it’s more concerned with an entirely different bodily organ. Based on Isaac Marion’s popular novel of the same name, the zombie romantic comedy deals directly with matters of the heart.
Through funny voice-over narration — “God, we move slow!” — we meet a young man named R (Nicholas Hoult). It’s been eight years since an unspecified plague destroyed the world, and R is a zombie who can’t remember the rest of his name…or anything else about his life. (R was wearing a hoodie at the time of the apocalypse, so he assumes he must’ve been unemployed. Zing!) R spends his days shuffling through an abandoned airport with the rest of the undead, which includes de facto best friend M (Rob Corddry).
During a food run — well, more like a food stagger — to the city, the zombies come across a pack of armed youngsters looking for medication to bring back to their walled city, overseen by the humorless General Grigio (John Malkovich). The survivors are led by Perry (a waste of the talented Dave Franco) and his girlfriend Julie (Teresa Palmer), who is also General Grigio’s daughter. Once R lays eyes on Julie, the zombie is smitten. R winds up assaulting Perry and bringing Julie back home with him.
We never do find out what R’s full name is, but given the star-crossed lovers storyline and the presence of a lovely young lady named Juliet, I think we can take an educated guess. Warm Bodies is far from a straight-up adaptation of Romeo & Juliet, but it absolutely nods at Shakespeare’s most famous tragedy. (There’s even a balcony scene, for moaning out loud!)
On top of using the world’s most famous love story as an inspiration, writer/director Jonathan Levine (who previously pulled off the tonally-tricky “cancer comedy” 50/50) incorporates plenty of romantic comedy shorthand into the film. This includes a montage of the couple doing silly things set to a pop song and having the young hipster heroes play with outdated forms of technology. (Both vinyl records and a Polaroid camera are conveniently lying around.) I can’t fully tell if Levine is tweaking these conventions to tell his loopy love story or if he’s using them earnestly. Since the plot involves R becoming more human as he and Julie connect and the zombie’s heart re-awakens, I’m leaning toward the latter.
After rocking one of the worst haircuts in movie history in About a Boy, Hoult has grown into a strapping young leading man. R doesn’t say much, and what he does say comes out in stilted, Frankenstein-speak. However, the actor is able to emote subtly and effectively through the contact lenses he’s required to wear. Zombies don’t get to be protagonists very often, but Hoult carries the movie quite well. Palmer is a lovely, feisty presence as Julie, but there isn’t much to the character besides being lovely and feisty. Corddry and Analeigh Tipton score a few laughs in the rote Best Friend roles, though I’m not sure why you’d hire someone as funny as Corddry only to barely have him speak. The casting of Malkovich also felt a bit off. I understand the idea of getting someone scary to play Julie’s dad and having the character be more unfeeling than the “corpses” he hunts down. However, the role requires none of the quirky charms Malkovich brings to the table as a performer. They may as well cast someone like Michael Ironside as the general.
These are minor quibbles. I’m more disappointed with the missed opportunities in this film. For example, I thought giving R the ability to talk right off the bat felt like a convenient storytelling shortcut. The potential was there for a Wall-E type love story where R courts Julie wordlessly before gradually becoming more human. There’s also a plot device involving the zombies’ ability to experience another person’s memories by eating their brain. The movie had the chance to make R seem like not such a good guy by having him surreptitiously gain intimate knowledge about Julie, but Levine doesn’t seem too interested in going there and only scratches the surface. Finally, both the survivors and the increasingly-human zombies — who are inspired by R and Julie’s connection — are menaced by a group of skeletal beasts called Bonies. Unfortunately, these villains came off like an afterthought; it’s as if somebody realized neither the zombies nor the humans were totally suitable antagonists, so they had to invent a new group of bad guys.
All that being said, I’m not mad at Warm Bodies because I believe its heart was in the right place. Zombie stories tend to be dark, cynical and satirical, so it was refreshing to experience a more optimistic take on the apocalypse.