Love conquers all, even zombiehood
He’s a zombie, you see, and she’s not. (They’re usually known as Corpses in the US, not too complicated.) He’s called “R” (Nicholas Hoult) — in his state that’s all he can remember of his name — and she’s called Julie (Teresa Palmer) — get it? (There’s even a kind of balcony scene, but it’s so understated you might miss it.) They’re star-cross’d, alright: her father (John Malkovich) is the head of a project to destroy all his kind. They’re not quite the usual undead, or R isn’t, certainly, because it turns out — and everybody’s as surprised as we are — that love and caring can bring them, slowly, back to life.
This young person’s date movie by Jonathan Levine of The Wackness and 50/50 works pretty well by turning a familiar horror genre into, well, a young person’s date movie. It’s a high concept flick that fades a bit once the concept’s been thoroughly got across to us (ironically it threatens to lose its pulse as its minimally-named protagonist begins getting one), but it’s sweet and fun.
I like coming back in my mind to the fairly long opening passage, before the movie even officially begins. This is where Levine sets the mood and creates sympathy for his main character. In it R, whose youthful, ironic voiceover we hear and whose point of view we’re seeing things from — an amusing and essential feature –recounts to us how he spends his days in desolate city streets or at the airport, which he calls home. What better place for zombies, right? Occasionally he meets up with his best friend, M (Rob Corddry) at an airport bar, but they can’t say much, only sort of stare and grunt at each other, maybe bring out a word or two, Samuel Beckett versions of inarticulate manhood.
Warm Bodies does have some standard zombie movie action of the George Romero kind. Even when the Corpses start warming up, there’s the evil “Bonies” to fight off. But none of this is ever quite as important as the romance. To feed this new mood, Levine uses his traditional George Romero-esque bombed-out empty spaces, which he found in Canada, in a delicate and evocative way. The film makes excellent use of Montreal locations here, particularly an abandoned airport.
The essence of it all is R and the way he looks. We know well enough from Robert Pattinson that girls can swoon over a pale and blood-drinking vampire. What’s the problem if R — he’d rather not talk about it; he’s not at all proud of it — eats human flesh? And underneath that rotting red hoodie and disintegrating T shirt there’s a cute young guy longing for a human being makeover, with big eager eyes, his pallor not unattractive, his longing when he meets this real girl utterly touching. (Hoult might have learned how to do this part playing in “Skins,” where his character, the Alpha Male at his Bristol college, gets hit by a bus and the brain damage that results turns him into a near-zombie for a good long while.) R is sort of a boy with potential. Oddly enough, he’s non-threatening. He can protect Julie from the hunger of not-so-romantic other zombies. And he adores her.
“Not safe,” R tells Julie, huddling her up in his lair, an empty airplane, where he hoards things, including a turntable and a collection of cool vinyl records, so he can play appropriate songs for Julie. She is always wanting to slip away. But wait: “Not safe!” Luckily he does not sleep; zombies don’t. He does, literally, feast on the memories of her rather generic boyfriend Perry (Dave Franco) whom, embarrassing though it is, R is responsible for killing and partially eating, saving bits of his brain. When he munches on them, they bring him images from Perry’s past and of course Julie’s, so R can vicariously experience moments of togetherness with her, more “normal” ones.
Some weaknesses develop in Warm Bodies as time goes on. After a while we’re used to being inside R’s head. His thoughts are wistful but sluggish. The novelty starts to wear off. Then because Levine wants this to be primarily a romantic comedy we don’t get the constant gory encounters of the usual zombie movie and a bit of undead ennui sets in. It’s disappointing that as the romance grows, the comedy tends to fade and there’s less and less of the wit and edge where we started out. Julie’s father (Malkovich) with his fixed desire to blow every Corpse’s head off is awfully harsh and relentless (though Malkovich doesn’t overdo it). The way caring brings Corpses back to life gets a bit corny.
On the other hand lively scenes between Julie and her best friend Nora (Analeigh Tipton), essential to develop the girlie perspective on things, are fresh and charming. And above all R’s struggle back to humanity, a beating heart, and a warm body is very slow and gradual. You could almost say it’s quite believable. That part is handled brilliantly. Nicholas Hoult makes a superb lovelorn zombie. This of course is not nearly as funny as Shaun of the Dead, but it’s more romantic and cute. Warm Bodies is a complete twist on the zombie film that breaks all its usual George Romero rules. As an exercise in genre-bending it’s a success, and it’s a great role for Nicholas Hoult. Robert Pattinson, move over. This takes itself less seriously than the Twilight series, and is more fun.
Warm Bodies hits cinemas 8th February 2013.
DIRECTOR: JONATHAN LEVINE
WRITER: JONATHAN LEVINE FROM THE NOVEL BY ISAAC MARION
STARS: NICHOLAS HOULT, TERESA PALMER, ANALEIGH TIPTON, ROB CORDDRY, JOHN MALKOVICH
RUNTIME: 97 MINS APPROX