On the surface, a film like Warm Bodies probably shouldn’t work. A blending of zombie horror and teen romance, the genres sound like they’d make for a pretty nasty combination ripe for a disastrous result. But those are exactly the sorts of films Jonathan Levine(50/50, All the Boys Love Mandy Lane) has specialized in during his young career, and not surprisingly he’s found the magic ingredients to make an undead version of Romeo & Juliet a fresh, affecting tale of young love.
Not surprisingly, the film comes from the folks at Summit Entertainment, hoping to lure the Twilight fans and The Walking Dead fans into hanging out for awhile. What they’ll find is a lightweight teen rom-com that still charts as more substantial than anything Bella and Edward encountered, while certainly not as harrowing as the folks on AMC’s hit show. Unable to completely hide his heartthrob good looks, Nicholas Hoult plays R, a zombie who still harbors fond memories of the way things were before some sort of undead apocalypse destroyed most of humanity. He harbors memories of a good many things, actually, and keeps a stockpile of old records and other trinkets of his prior life. Staying in an old jetliner with a horde of other zombies who seem perfectly fine with their current predicament, R wants something more than just eating brains and slowly deteriorating. He even wonders why it is he can’t connect with people. It’s because you’re dead, silly.
Aussie heart-stopper Teresa Palmer is Julie, part of an armed human resistance against the zombies, and the daughter of General Grigio (John Malkovich), the man leading the charge. While out on patrol, she and her team, which includes her boyfriend Perry (Dave Franco) and best friend Nora (Analeigh Tipton), are attacked by R and a bunch of other zombies. R quickly kills Perry, but before he can do away with Julie he finds himself completely smitten by the gun-toting beauty.
In a rather inventive twist that keeps the zombies from being completely inhuman, they relive the real human emotions and memories of their victims while devouring their brains. It taps into their desire to feel something human again, which is just as primal as the hunger to feed. Through devouring Perry’s gray matter, R can relive his past with Julie, seen in vivid flashbacks. Stealing her away from the fighting, R makes the sort of nonsensical move only someone blinded by love would make: he takes her back to the zombie stronghold. There he hides her in his jet cabin, where they slowly grow closer by listening to his old rock ballads. Sure, the fact that he ate her boyfriend is glossed over a little, but their developing connection is nonetheless extremely sweet despite also being a little morbid. Along the way, Julia discovers that throwing a little love R’s way could possibly change him, and thus change the world in a way all of her daddy’s weapons can’t. It’s a tale of forbidden teen love, only with a few more rotting corpses. The humor is mostly of the ironic Shaun of the Dead variety, and at certain points the post-apocalyptic jokes bore some similarity to last year’s Seeking a Friend for the End of the World. That’s a very good thing.
Palmer, who was easily the best thing about Take Me Home Tonight and I Am Number Four, has many of the same qualities that make Kristen Stewart so successful. It doesn’t hurt that they look like identical cousins. She has a knack for imbuing her characters with an undeniable inner strength that makes them utterly irresistible. It probably wasn’t all that difficult for Hoult to play someone who falls madly in love with her. If only Levine could have gotten more out of Malkovich, who simply isn’t given a whole lot to do here as the obstinate father-figure. Levine as always had a way with soundtracks, and he employs an eclectic mix of rock hits during some rather disturbing scenes. It works, even if you’ll likely never hear “Missing You” again without thinking of zombies chomping on human brains.
Having never read the Isaac Marion novel from which the film is based, it’s impossible to say how faithful it is. What Levine has done is take two stale genres and make them much greater than their individual parts. Warm Bodies is a slickly made, ingeniously constructed teen comedy warm enough to melt even the coldest heart.