As a zombie film, Warm Bodies is certainly closer to Zombieland and Shaun of the Dead than it is to Day of the Dead or 28 Days Later.
But it’s got one thing in abundance that those more hardcore zombie flicks are a great deal shorter on — romantic charm.
What’s it about?
Based on the best-selling novel of the same name by Isaac Marion, Warm Bodies focuses on the thoughts and emotions of “R” (Nicholas Hoult, Jack the Giant Slayer), a likable, hoodie-wearing, music-on-vinyl-loving, post-adolescent everyman who, unfortunately for him, is a zombie.
For R (that’s all he remembers of his name, that while he was alive his name started with an “R”), un-life has fallen into a pattern of shuffling aimlessly around an airport with other victims of the zombie plague that destroyed the world. He hangs out with his “best friend” M (Rob Corddry, hilarious), sharing with him “almost conversations”, and occasionally going out into the ruins of the nearby city to find humans to eat when hungry.
Then one fine day while he, M, and a group of other corpses are out in the city for a bite (sorry, couldn’t resist), they come upon a group of teens sent out by the nearby community of plague survivors that live on the other side of a gigantic wall built to keep the plague out.
The group, sent out to forage for medical supplies and food by the community’s military commander, General Grigio (John Malkovich, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy), is immediately set upon by the corpses. In the midst of the shooting, the panic, and the blood, R spots Julie (Teresa Palmer) and is immediately smitten with … well, something.
He sets out to keep Julie safe from becoming a meal for the other corpses or worse, for the “Boneys”, the vicious, fast-moving skeletons who scare even the more human-looking corpses, and for a while, he succeeds. The Boneys and the other corpses don’t scare R very much, though; what’s much more daunting is being around Julie without staring at her or being creepy, err, creepier.
As for Julie, she’s not sure at first if she’s a captive and being kept for a future meal, but eventually, she bonds with R and their time together brings about the beginning of an amazing, impossible transformation.
Yup, you guessed it: love starts to bring R back to life. That’s not a spoiler, by the way — it’s all over the film’s marketing and in the trailer. It’s the film’s hook, and as cheesy as it might sound here, it actually works.
Director Jonathan Levine, who also wrote the adapted screenplay for Warm Bodies, takes a few liberties with the novel’s story in terms of how things actually play out, especially in the film’s final act.
The result is a film that’s more interested in being heart-warming and cute rather than scary and suspenseful. Julie’s “captivity” in particular, the time she spends with R, is shown in montage and effectively played for giggles and “awwwws.”
It’s not saccharine by any means, however. It’s clever, and it’s a fun, fresh-feeling metaphor for the effect that first love is supposed to have, meaning, it’s supposed to make you feel “alive”, right?
Strong casting helps
Of course, none of this would work particularly well if acted out by actors without chemistry or talent. Thankfully that’s not the case here.
It can’t be overstated how challenging Hoult’s task is here: to convey powerful feelings such as infatuation, wonder, joy, fear, and devotion through the dead-eyed, fixed facial feature facade of a zombie, and to do so in a way that’s funny and charming.
Yes, we’re given the benefit of hearing his internal monologue, which does spell things out. But watching Hoult on screen in a number of scenes, it’s fairly easy to imagine he could have conveyed much of the same information without the voice-over, simply with his limited expressions and monosyllabic dialogue.
Playing a living, breathing, fully speech-capable girl opposite Hoult’s zombie might seem like an easier task, but don’t dismiss Teresa Palmer’s work here as Julie, either. Remember, she’s asked to convincingly portray a girl who comes to have feelings for a boy who happens to be DEAD.
Yup, the boy might have cool taste in music and might be interesting in terms of the junk he collects, but he’s DEAD. If the whole thing were played as farce, the job might have been easier. Instead, she’s asked to do this in a way that’s believable, and she pulls it off. It’s pretty impressive work.
Comedian Rob Corddry, once upon a time of Comedy Central’s The Daily Show, Dave Franco (younger brother of James), and Analeigh Tipton (Crazy, Stupid, Love) all put in fine performances here, as well. Corddry gets the lion’s share of one-liners, or perhaps more accurately since he’s a zombie, one-worders.
If anything, Malkovich fans might be disappointed by his contributions here. He’s not asked to do much aside from look burdened and occasionally point a gun and rant at someone about how dangerous corpses are.
But then again, he’s not really the bad guy here. The Boneys are, and that’s really where the film loses focus and misses a step.
Entirely computer-generated bad guys are always a tough sell. In “Warm Bodies,” where the love story never really relinquishes center stage and the threat the Boneys represent feels almost obligatory, the fact that they look like cast-offs from a video game makes the parts of the film focused on them feel all the more lacking in intensity.
Put another way, you get the sense by the end of the film that if he could have gotten away with it, Levine might have written his screenplay and shot this film without including the Boneys at all. Who knows? It might have even worked that way, too.
Starring Nicholas Hoult, Teresa Palmer, Rob Corddry, Dave Franco, Analeigh Tipton, Cory Hardrict, and John Malkovich. Directed by Jonathan Levine.
Running Time: 97 minutes
Rated PG-13 for zombie violence and some language.