A guy walks into a pharmacy and sees a girl. It’s love at first sight. So he eats the eats the girl’s boyfriend, kidnaps her, takes her home, and forces her to listen to his vinyl collection until she falls in love with him. That’s the plot of Warm Bodies in a nutshell, and you know what? It’s still a more psychologically sound basis for romantic relationship than anything that was depicted in the Twilight franchise.
Writer/director Jonathan Levine’s Warm Bodies will likely stand as the best thing to come out of Hollywood’s mad dash to cash in on the Twilight craze. It’s also a fine movie in its own right. And that’s truly surprising. A romantic comedy about a zombie falling in love with a girl should be utterly terrible.
Anyone seeking to convert the zombie subgenre into a romantic comedy palatable to teenage girls has to walk a tightrope. On the one hand, said person would have to find a way to make rotting, cannibalistic corpses sexy without being completely creepy, and the other hand, said person would have to find a way to create a PG-13 entry in one of the most inherently violent subgenres of horror. Somehow Jonathan Levine pulled it off: Warm Bodies is a romantic comedy (romantic zomedy?) that manages to be just violent enough to feel like a proper zombie movie while also being charming and light-hearted enough to appeal to any romantics in the crowd.
A very loose adaptation of Romeo and Juliet, the film follows R (Nicholas Hoult), a twenty-something zombie, who spends his days aimlessly wandering an airport terminal with his best friend (played by The Daily Show’s Rob Corddry) in the wake of the zombie apocalypse. He’s a little more clean cut and a little less rotten than the zombies we’ve become accustomed to in the past couple of decades, but he’s a zombie. He shuffles around, he groans, and he eats brains. We learn all of this through seeing him in action, but also we learn it through a distant and hilariously perceptive narration provided by R.
However, everything changes for R after he walks into a pharmacy and encounters the girl of his undead dreams. That girl is Julie (the gorgeous Teresa Palmer), the daughter of a resistance leader played by John Malkovich. R and his fellow zombies tear into Julie’s friends and devour them whole. R kills Julie’s boyfriend (Dave Franco) by literally bashing his brains out.
Through R’s narration, we finally learn why zombies crave brains: whenever a zombie devours a human’s brain, he gets to be alive for a moment—he gets to experience all of the emotions and memories of the person he’s just killed. R starts eating said boyfriend’s brain, and suddenly his attraction to Julie intensifies. Acting against instinct, he saves the girl and drags her back with him to his home.
And that’s only the beginning, because Teresa Palmer is so incredibly hot that she causes the hearts of every zombie in the movie to suddenly start beating again. As the movie progresses the love R feels for Julie begins to transform him back into a human. He slowly relearns how to talk and he starts looking a little less dead. The more human R becomes, the more Julie starts to care for him. Whenever he succumbs to his base nature, he has a pocket full of the dead boyfriend’s brains to munch on. Slowly but surely, their burgeoning love begins to infect the rest of the undead. Well, not all of the undead—some of the undead are a little too rotten and skeletalized to come back; they also sport nasty tempers and don’t particularly care for all of the touchy-feely emotions that begin spreading though the populace like so many STDs.
One interesting side effect of making a zombie the protagonist of a romantic comedy is that we finally have a zombie movie where the zombies are more interesting than the human characters. And I mean that in a good way. Zombies make for awful characters—they’re faceless, they’re stupid, they shamble around moaning and eating dead bodies. They don’t have personalities and they don’t develop as characters. There’s no point to them other than to serve as bullet fodder for human protagonists.
Here, however, we have a zombie protagonist who is relatable, conflicted, and funny. Part of that is due to the film’s sharp screenplay, but it mostly it has to do with Nicholas Hoult’s brilliant comedic performance. Somewhat constricted by playing a shambling corpse for two thirds of the movie, Hoult finds a way to convey emotion and humor with nothing more a subtle facial expression. Hoult employs a mostly deadpan performance that works perfectly for the material. Because Hoult finds a way to make us care for a brain-eating monster, the movie actually works.
Warm Bodies has a few strikes against it—namely that it comes close to being a little too precious and a little too indie for its own good—but the positives outweigh the negatives here. Unlike the Twilight series, where the vampire mythology was neutered in favor of telling a contrived romance—Warm Bodies manages to honor the zombie subgenre while playfully subverting conventions. Warm Bodies is a decent zombie flick, a decent comedy, and a considerably better picture than any movie sporting this premise has any right to be.