Despite the explosion of the zombie genre in the last decade, the undead themselves have become predictable one trick ponies. They stumble around. They drool. They’re most commonly very stupid. They hunger for human brains. And eventually, they’re killed off with a bloody gunshot to the head. It’s almost impossible to put a new spin on zombies without taking away the very characteristics that made them so memorable in the first place.
Warm Bodies provides a solution to that problem. Not by changing the zombies themselves too much, but by putting them in a different context, in this case a romantic comedy. A zom-rom-com if you like. In this instance, the zombie apocalypse is caused by an addiction to technology, which when you think about it is a hauntingly plausible idea. It sounds like the kind of zombie film David Cronenberg would make. And yet, the apocalypse itself is barely explored. It’s central theme of love being the best form of redemption removes the edginess of the premise, but it’s still admirable that a film like this could adopt such a positive outlook.
After the apocalypse, a zombie known as R (Nicholas Hoult) lives in an abandoned airport with fellow members of the undead. When R and a group of other zombies attack a group of humans, he meets Julie (Teresa Palmer) and is suddenly overcome with a strange affection for her. Throwing caution to the wind, R rescues Julie from the rest of the pack, and the two soon find themselves developing a strong bond.
R really could be the first of his kind; a zombie that feels there could be more to life than eating people. Or at least that’s what he hopes. But then again, there are many things that make R more human than zombie. He tries to remember his name, but is only certain it starts was an R. He fantasises about the past human lives of his zombie friends at the abandoned airport. Nicholas Hoult does a great job bringing it all together, combining understated charm and wit with the occasional scene of snarling and drooling.
Teresa Palmer’s Julie may not be quite as well drawn out as R, but at least we can see why they like each other. The unlikely friendship that forms between the two of them feels genuine, and that’s mostly down to the rather natural chemistry between Hoult and Palmer themselves. John Malkovich also makes an appearance as Julie’s heavily militarised father. Malkovich for the most part gives a restrained performance, no doubt because he knows the material is already strange enough.
Director Jonathan Levine handles the source material by novelist Isaac Marion very well. He gives the film occasional flourishes of style, mainly during the scenes that have an impressively cold grey tint. He doesn’t forget to provide plenty of humour during the dark and bleakly comic portraits of the day-to-day life of a zombie. Levine handles it more like an indie film that has more in common with smart and quirky rom-coms like (500) Days of Summer than it does with romantic teen fluff like Twilight.
Ultimately, Warm Bodies has a central universal theme, despite having all the niche qualities of a cult classic. It’s about the difficulty in communicating what you truly feel. R struggles to tell Julie how he really feels, at points rather comically, because he thinks he’ll seem creepy. The film manages to keep the rather darkly charming laughs coming throughout, despite the final act which drifts into more unoriginal action movie territory.
There are times when it feels like the film has made the point it’s trying to make, but it still feels the need to hammer it home a little too much. All things considered however, that is a minor fault. There are after all very few zombie films around that are so warm that it makes the threat of an apocalypse seem charming. It’s a heartwarming and entertaining delight that has the, erm, guts to go in a different direction.
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