WARM BODIES is the sweetest zombie movie ever made. Not the funniest (that’s SHAUN OF THE DEAD), not the most visually striking (28 DAYS LATER) or the most affecting (COLIN), but certainly the sweetest. When I say sweet, I don’t mean in the forced saccharine bad Richard Curtis movie way, but in the sense that the central relationship really works, and the film’s message is heartfelt and innocent. It’s not really about zombies, but has an interesting and creative take on the conventions of that horror sub-genre.
We follow “R” (Nicholas Hoult) who’s a zombie. He’s not particularly content with his state of being, but he’s grudgingly come to accept it because he doesn’t have another option. That all changes with a chance encounter with a beautiful, alive young lady Julie (Teresa Palmer) who begins to rewarm his heart and reawaken his long-lost humanity. And so, the zombified reworking of ROMEO AND JULIET begins.
The premise sounds pretty soppy, but it’s all delivered with a degree of wit and self-awareness. Director Jonathan Levine and writer of the adapted novel Isaac Marion both to an extent embrace the silliness of the central premise, and use it to tell an involving love story, in addition to a serviceable zombie horror. Since verbal communication isn’t a strongpoint of R’s, he narrates his day-to-day life (or lack of) with deadpan bitterness. This is where Hoult’s talent and versatility as an actor really shines through – it’s a physically demanding role with all the undead movement and mannerisms, but he also has to communicate to the viewer his character’s thoughts and newly rediscovered emotions in a meaningful way, mostly through his eyes and slight alterations in his facial expression. Teresa Palmer is strong in support as Julie, and because of R’s naturally passive nature, she has to actively move the plot along and do most of the emotional heavy lifting. The story’s about R rediscovering his humanity, but it’s also about Julie looking beyond the surface to discover the sweet deceased creature he is.
I like that Warm Bodies posits that being turned into a zombie isn’t a one-way trip, that all hope is not lost. The zombie movie genre tends to be a bit of a miserable, doom-and-gloom affair, and Warm Bodies stands out by not conforming to this. Yes, there’s darkness in the plot, but it’s incredibly well-balanced with humour and heart. The best scenes are between R and his zombie best buddy M (the ever-hilarious Rob Corddry), who manages to evoke an incredible variety of retorts with a limited arsenal of grunts, moans, and the odd short word.
I only have a couple of real issues with the film. One is John Malkovich, who seems to be there to just have a big-name veteran in the cast (and his name on the poster) and brings nothing extra to his role as the leader of the human survivors. The other is the film’s limited budget, which sadly removes a certain amount of menace from the real threat of the film, the “bonies” – emaciated, feral and fast zombies that will viciously attack anything they come into contact with. I understand the film needed another kind of creature to serve as the main antagonist as regular zombies are basically shown to be misunderstood in this world, but because the budget was so modest they end up looking more like something that has just walked out of THE NIGHTMARE BEFORE CHRISTMAS than anything really scary. There’s also one process the filmmakers have R undergo to give him a window on the human condition which, while stylistically striking and original, doesn’t really work when you stop to think about it, and comes across as just too silly.
I really enjoyed Warm Bodies as a refreshing take on both zombie apocalypse films and the classic “boy-meets-girl”. By combining the usually disparate horror and rom-com genres (admittedly already done by Edgar Wright in Shaun) the tried-and-tested formula of both is given new life and energy. Hoult, Palmer and Corddry can frankly effortlessly carry an underwhelming, lazy Malkovich, and the few ideas that don’t quite work are outshone by everything else being done really well, particularly the unconventional awkward/cute relationship at the film’s centre. It’s a real treat of a genre hybrid. SSP