The worn out zombie genre gets a welcome reboot in the winning Warm Bodies, about a zombie and human who fall in love and—what else?— change the world. Based on the popular novel by Isaac Marion and directed by Jonathan Levine (The Wackness, 50/50) with a sure hand on both comedy and romance, the picture takes place in a post-apocalyptic world where humans live inside a walled city and the walking dead outside roam the remains of a crumbled society.
Instead of the usual mayhem—and I do love 28 Days Later as much as the next guy—Warm Bodies gives us humor, sweetness and two lovely performances in its Romeo and Juliet story (it even contains a delightful balcony scene), notably the handsome, lanky charm of British star Nicholas Hoult (A Single Man) as “R,” a young and aimless zombie who can’t remember his full name and falls head-over-heels (and who wouldn’t?) for Julie (a radiant Teresa Palmer), the daughter of a warmongering czar of a father (John Malkovich) whose mission is to wipe out the zombie population. But otherwise, just your average disapproving father.
Much like George Romero’s classic Dawn of the Dead, which used a shopping mall as satiric residence, R roams an airport terminal with a population of other zombies, each of whom still has traces of humanity buried deep, which doesn’t negate their need to feed on human flesh. The twist here, and it’s a good one, is that feeding on human brains actually allows them to commune with the memories of their victim, a novelty that comes in handy after R devours Julie’s former boyfriend, played by Dave Franco. Talk about getting inside your girlfriend’s head.
R’s actual home is the cabin of a grounded 747, a den of retro music, movies and memories, and after saving Julie’s life he shuttles her there to safety where the two tentatively bond, and it’s here that Warm Bodies finds firm footing with two likable young actors upstaging the genre proceedings. Their desire to connect and to be understood, particularly R’s struggle to articulate his strange, new feelings, gives this picture real heart.
R lurches around like Frankenstein, an absolutely inspired bit of physical acting by Hoult, who largely narrates the film’s soundtrack given that for much of the film he is unable to articulate actual words, played for laughs with his zombie best friend M (Rob Corddry, very funny). Hoult’s is a performance of such inspiration it recalls a silent movie; he is that expressive.
Other than humans and zombies, there’s another species that has developed—the “bonies”—which are essentially zombies who have fed on themselves and devolved into voracious, skeleton-like creatures, rendered here with expert CGI that never feels like too much or threatens to overtake the comedy and tenderness between the film’s young pair. Like the recent hit Mama, it uses technology sparingly and effectively.
In addition to Corddry’s excellent comic support, the exciting young actress Analeigh Tipton (Crazy Stupid Love) shows up as Julie’s jaded best friend and, in the film’s best scene, uses her personal make-up kit (“I was saving it for a special occasion which obviously isn’t going to happen”) to transform R into an almost human-looking version of his former self, fit to introduce to dad.
Once R and Julie warm up to each other a shift happens in the zombie populous—they begin to become human again—and the remainder of the picture is about their blossoming romance, which not only makes him human but engenders the same changes in his fellow zombies. And that portion of the story is just lovely.
Warm Bodies caught me by surprise—I wasn’t prepared for how sweet the picture is and how well-acted, particularly by Hoult, who delivers a fresh and unpredictable character. The message in Warm Bodies—that love can bring someone back from the dead, heal the world and unify peoples—is sufficiently underplayed as not to be preachy. The terrific Hoult reminds us that what passes between characters unsaid (a rarity in today’s reductive Hollywood screenplays) is a welcome anathema to overwritten movie dialogue.
Warm Bodies may be a small picture, but it’s a good one.