“Warm Bodies” is the latest, and emotionally, the best film in the recent trend, starting with “Shaun of the Dead,” to revive the zombie film for comedic and even rom-com effect. “Zombieland” is its closest predecessor, a film more interested in the eccentricities of the humans battling the zombies–including a couple of kick-ass sisters who excel at scheming–than the zombie battles themselves.
And as all zombie movies must, both ended in a predictable and relatively mundane showdown between the humans and the zombies. Whereas vampire stories offer the opportunity to explore sexual dynamics, power dynamics and even Peter Pan syndrome, zombie films necessarily force conventions and limit storytelling, as zombies, by definition, are brainless, brain-eating drudges who must inevitably be exterminated.
“Warm Bodies” shakes the genre up a bit by making a zombie, R (Nicholas Hoult), the main character and successfully gets us to sympathize with his plight: He’s a lonely teenager. Near the beginning he asks in voice-over, “Why can’t I connect with people? Oh right, I’m dead.” This kind of wry humor is R’s trademark, and it permeates his voiceovers, delivered with perfect deadpan and comic timing by Hoult. The film is at its smartest and liveliest in these voiceovers; it’s what makes us root for R even when his behavior is questionable.
R spends his days ambling around an abandoned airport, now only inhabited by zombies, contemplating his existence and conflicted about his competing desires to both connect with people and to eat their brains. Occasionally, he and his zombie friends, including M (Rob Corddry), venture out into no man’s land, in search of a brain to nibble on, which is where he encounters Julie (Teresa Palmer).
After devouring her boyfriend’s brain–a process during which the victim’s memories are transferred to the zombie, reinvigorating the zombie’s humanity–R decides to spare Julie’s brain and save her life, bringing her back to his lair to stay in the process. The goal, of course, is to get her to like him. Of course, he had no idea that falling for her could be the cure to make him un-undead.
The trouble is that R is barely able to articulate a grunt out loud, let alone a sentence, which makes his tentative courtship with Julie limited. Their relationship is still heartwarming and often funny–more a tribute to the actors, playing out recognizable insecurities, than the screenplay–but it also has the tendency to fall into predictable cliché, and in this case it’s not only zombie cliché, but also rom-com cliché. Yet the film is still fresh, especially in the first half when the characters are front and center, and R’s voiceover guides the narrative.
The film was adapted by the director, Jonathan Levine, from Isaac Marion’s novel of the same title, a first-person narrative which allowed the reader to revel in R’s wonderful inner monologue constantly; however, we only get glimpses. On screen, we have to watch the actual grunting between lines.
British actor Hoult is the film’s greatest asset: He’s charismatic, conflicted and compelling even as he slouches and saunters and grunts out words. Hoult first came onto the film scene as an awkward kid in “About a Boy,” often stealing scenes, but since Britain’s “Skins,” he has grown into quite the heartthrob–even in zombie makeup–with wonderful screen presence. Perhaps “Warm Bodies” will be the necessary launch-point for his career as a leading man and star in the United States.