The zombie genre has gone the way of vampires lately, except that it managed to dodge the romance bits — until now. Yes, it’s even possible for the undead to fall in love, though considerably more difficult. “Warm Bodies” introduces the zombie romantic comedy (yes, zom-rom-com), and despite all the ways that in name alone it sounds as though the film could fail, it manages to carve its own niche among zombie pop-culture.
Luckily for us, Jonathan Levine adapts and directs this Isaac Marion novel. The director of “50/50” and “The Wackness” has yet to disappoint, and though the premise of “Warm Bodies” brings him dangerously close, his grasp on romance and making young love work on the screen serves him well yet again.
Levine’s talents aside, “Warm Bodies” is a premise-driven film, which has its pros and cons. Other filmmakers could’ve executed it in ways that would’ve yielded countless movie reviews featuring the word “cold” in the headline, but a zombie who struggles with being emotionally dead inside and having to prey on human brains has its inherent merits. Conceptually, it takes on a certain life of its own that Levine mostly capitalizes on whenever possible.
The film begins in our main character’s (Nicholas Hoult) head as he copes with being a meandering, flesh-craving zombie and dreams (even though the dead can’t dream in the literal sense) about getting something more out of this paltry existence. The film widens in scope with each passing scene, and though it never gets any better than it is when it’s more intimate, it doesn’t go so far off the rails in the finale that it loses sight of the charm that got us to pay attention up to that point.
Everything changes for R (that’s all he can remember of his first name) when he, his dead best friend (Rob Corddry) and a band of hungry corpses encounter some of the survivors from whatever outbreak caused everyone to become zombies eight years ago. A young woman (Teresa Palmer) catches his eye, and he unknowingly devours the brains of her boyfriend (Dave Franco), thereby receiving his memories of the girl, named Julie. R instantly becomes protective of Julie and helps her escape to his personal jet (an airplane stranded on a runway that R calls home).
R convinces Julie she is only safe if she stays with him, deceiving her for companionship purposes. They bond in a number of ways as R’s use of language drastically begins to improve. It’s clear he’s becoming more and more human with time.
Hoult and Palmer have the difficult task of creating chemistry between their characters, which had to have been one of Levine’s biggest challenges making this film. Presumably, Julie would be grossed out by her undead protector, but she senses his humanity rather quickly. To slow things down from there, however, she tries to ditch him at first. If her romantic interest had grown too quickly, it would’ve trashed the entire film. Given his track record, Levine should get a lot of the credit for allowing the audience time to warm up to their relationship.
Palmer has been in a number of young-adult geared action films (“The Sorcerer’s Apprentice,” “I Am Number Four”) but her performances have been either overshadowed or crushed by these giant turd blockbusters. “Warm Bodies” is a better fit with its indie sensibilities. She makes Julie’s combination of fear, curiosity and love come together into a smoother blend than you’d expect from this kind of film.
Hoult, on the other hand, has to find a perfect balance between zombie caricature and a thinking, emotional person. The narration crucially helps us connect with him, otherwise we’d never get to know him as a character, but he finds a way in the more traditional scenes when he interacts with Julie to express those feelings with grunts and slow-forming words. Think of all the cheesy monster movies when the “thing” expresses his feelings out loud for the first time. Just the mere thought of that has my eyes rolling, but Hoult keeps them firmly interested in what’s going on.
The story falters a bit toward the end because its trajectory is so apparent. R is becoming more alive, so he’ll either become “a real boy” again or get killed before it happens, perhaps even by Julie’s cold father, the leader of the survivors (John Malkovich). Suddenly we have a war of ideologies between Julie and those that believe zombies have the capacity to change and become more human and those who think they’re nothing but animals who’ll snack on your insides the second you let your guard down. It’s a pretty classic motif, but you probably never figured someone would apply it to a zombie movie.
Some unidentifiable spark between R and Julie, or perhaps between Hoult and Palmer, sticks through to the end of the film, even in the more action-oriented finale. “Warm Bodies” also doesn’t ever lose its sense of humor, helping talk us down from taking it too seriously. And even though characters such as the best friend (Analeigh Tipton) appear to serve only comic relief, it doesn’t try too hard for the awkward zombie joke.
“Warm Bodies” twists things up with this unusual genre riff and Levine subdues it rather than ramming its uniqueness down our throats. He makes it foremost about two people who seem like an odd fit that come to love each other — and that’s really the essence of the better romantic comedies of all time.
Directed by Jonathan Levine
Written by Jonathan Levine, Isaac Marion (novel)
Starring: Nicholas Hoult, Teresa Palmer, Rob Corddry, Analeigh Tipton