Director : Jonathan Levine
Screenplay : Jonathan Levine (based on the novel by Isaac Marion)
MPAA Rating : PG-13
Year of Release : 2013
Stars : Nicholas Hoult (R), Teresa Palmer (Julie), Analeigh Tipton (Nora), Rob Corddry (M), Dave Franco (Perry), John Malkovich (Grigio), Cory Hardrict (Kevin), Daniel Rindress-Kay (Solder #1), Vincent Leclerc (Perry’s Dad), Clifford LeDuc-Vaillancourt (Boy at Airport), Billie Calmeau (Girl at Airport), Adam Driscoll (Young Man at ATM)
While Pink Floyd famously noted “There’s someone in my head, but it’s not me” in their classic song “Brain Damage,” R (Nicholas Hoult), the protagonist of Warm Bodies, has exactly the opposite problem: He lives entirely inside his own head because, well, he’s a zombie—a lumbering dead-eyed corpse who craves human flesh and can only grunt a few syllables. Yet, inside his own mind he is alive and, ironically, completely aware of his absurd situation, yet unable to do anything about it. Part of the inherent charm and poignancy of Warm Bodies, which is certainly the unlikeliest romantic comedy you’ll see this year, is the disconnect between R’s interior and exterior worlds, which makes him immediately sympathetic while also allowing for a witty and unexpected take on the zombie genre, which is fast becoming one of the most exhausted in the horror canon.
R has no memories of his former life and doesn’t even know what his name is (only that it starts with an R). He deduces from his red hoodie that he was probably an unemployed young man, but it doesn’t really matter because the world has been torn apart by some kind of apocalyptic event that has turned most of the human race into flesh-seeking zombies. Along with hundreds of other members of the walking dead, R makes his home at an airport, although he is special in that he seeks to collect and store remnants of the previous world, which he puts into an abandoned 747 that he has turned into a homey museum of things past. R’s voiceover narration draws us into his experience, which is only one of the many twists Warm Bodies wrings out the zombie film. Accustomed as we are to seeing zombies as thoughtless ghouls or metaphors waiting to be filled with social significance, encountering one who is flooded with thoughts, emotions, and existential conflict over his predicament is both amusing and moving. While other zombie movies make us fear the zombie hoards, this one encourages us to think about what it must be like being trapped inside an undead body.
As unlikely as it sounds, Warm Bodies, which is based on a novel by Isaac Marion, is first and foremost a zombie-human romance, and a tender, poignant one at that. The human half of the romance is Julie (Teresa Palmer), a member of a group of human survivors who have barricaded themselves inside a major city and built a huge wall to keep the lumbering undead out. Julie’s father, Grigio (John Malkovich), is the militarist leader of the survivors who appears before his subjects on a giant video screen—the ultimate absentee father. Julie’s boyfriend, Perry (Dave Franco), who was once sweet and sensitive, has been turned hard and cold by his experiences in the eight years since the zombie plague hit, which makes it not too much of a tragedy when he is killed by zombies while on a mission to recover drugs from a pharmacy outside the protective wall. The problem is that R is the zombie who kills him and, in eating his brain, gets to experience his memories (I know, I know, it sounds disgusting, but it really works within the context of the film). This, coupled with R’s love-at-first-sight encounter with Julie, causes him to fall in love with her, which means that he must resist his innate zombie tendency to eat her and instead protect her from the other zombies, especially the ones called “bonies,” which are zombies who have given up all hope, torn off their own flesh, and developed a particularly nasty disposition. Naturally, Julie isn’t immediately comfortable with R’s presence, but after he takes her back to the 747 and keeps her safe from several days, she begins to recognize the flickers of humanity that have always resided inside his dead flesh, but are now, because of their growing relationship, beginning to manifest themselves physically, primarily via his increasing ability to communicate beyond simple grunts.
Writer/director Jonathan Levine, whose previous film, 50/50 (2010), was only partially successful in mining comedy and pathos from the threat of a young man dying from cancer, strikes an almost perfect tonal balance throughout Warm Bodies, playing the film’s horrific elements straight (or as straight as he can within the confines of a PG-13 rating) while also drawing out indelible bits of dark humor and making the relationship between R and Julie fully human. Interestingly, it was the romantic subplot that was the weakest and least convincing element in 50/50, yet here Levine manages to make the growing connection between a girl and a zombie not only plausible, but surprisingly moving. In deftly mixing elements of horror and teen angst within the clearly discernible framework of Shakespeare’s Romeo & Juliet, Warm Bodies is thick with postmodern humor and knowing irony, but it never comes at the expense of R and his gradual shift from zombie to the possibility of being human again. As the Beatles declared, “All you need is love.”
Copyright ©2013 James Kendrick
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