Although Warm Bodies seems like a blatant attempt to cash in on the “supernatural teen romance” subgenre popularised by the abominable Twilight saga, the similarities start and end with the idea of a human falling in love with a supernatural creature. In fact, Warm Bodies has more in common with Edward Scissorhands, as it’s a quirky, incredibly endearing romance that’s wonderfully acted and directed. It’s a peculiar hybrid of Shakespeare and zombies, but the result is pure bliss, with writer-director Jonathan Levine (50/50) pulling off an ostensibly impossible tonal juggling act to tell this oddball tale of zombie romance. It may not match films like Shaun of the Dead or Zombieland in terms of laughs or thrills, but it packs a great deal of heart.
After an apocalyptic world disaster, the planet has become overrun with the walking dead. Human survivors live behind huge walls, while the zombies are left to wander around aimlessly looking for fresh meat. Residing in an airport, R (Nicholas Hoult) is a sensitive creature who feels guilty about feeding on humans, but is compelled to do so in order to survive. During an attack on a group of humans, R spies a woman named Julie (Teresa Palmer), and he suddenly begins to feel emotions he’s long forgotten. Wanting to protect Julie from his zombie brethren, R takes the frightened girl back to his shelter within an abandoned plane, trying to communicate through his actions and the limited number of words he can utter. Julie is horrified at first, but begins growing a hesitant trust for the zombie as they spend time together. Their relationship cannot last, though, as Julie’s father (John Malkovich) oversees the military team assigned to slaughter zombies. But R starts to display human-like qualities the more he hangs out with Julie, beginning a trend in the rest of the undead.
As plot complications continue to pile up, you begin to wonder how everything will end up being resolved, but Levine (adapting Isaac Marion’s novel of the same name) does a superb job of wrapping everything up without making the ending too overwrought or prolonged. Plus, the film closes on a happy ending that doesn’t feel like a total cop-out, which is miraculous. Warm Bodies manages to breathe fresh life into zombie lore as well. The film actually evokes memories of George A. Romero’s Day of the Dead in the way it depicts the living dead learning to use vehicles and weapons. Luckily, Levine doesn’t pussify zombies (a la Twilight), instead merely presenting a balanced and thoughtful perspective on them, which is refreshing. Nevertheless, the undead still have real bite here; although R is sensitive, there are packs of skeletal zombies known as “Bonies” which are ferocious and add genuine threat to the tale.
Clocking in at a brisk 95 minutes, Warm Bodies progresses at a nice clip and never outstays its welcome, yet more narrative development would’ve been beneficial. The film hinges on our belief that the zombies can be rehabilitated as they get in touch with human feeling again, but it’s never quite believable enough as it’s too rushed. It needed more breathing space and time to gestate; it all happens too quickly, making a number of things hard to swallow. Added to this, the script is tacky from time to time, with a few eye-rolling lines of dialogue. This aside, there’s little else to complain about in Warm Bodies, which is otherwise a solid film. Levine keeps things playful and fun, with the script emphasising R’s buzzing brain. See, although R can only speak a few words at a time, we’re privy to his interior monologues, hence there’s a lot of effective voiceover narration that adds context to his actions on top of providing some wry humour.
There’s no getting over the fact that Warm Bodies is patently ridiculous; the scientific underpinnings of the premise and a few aspects of the narrative are a bit too cutesy for their own good. But the film overcomes this because Levine commits to the premise with absolute sincerity. Levine was last seen behind the cancer comedy 50/50 for which he displayed a miraculous ability to mix the sweet and the sour, and he retains this skill for Warm Bodies. He strikes a perfect tonal balance, playing the horrific elements completely straight while also providing some exceptional comedy and a sense of sweetness. Indeed, the relationship between Julie and R feels fully human, and gains more emotional traction than most Hollywood romances. The payoff is rewarding, as we get the chance to feel invested in the relationship. Warm Bodies is also a handsome and well-made motion picture despite its modest budget. Cinematographer Javier Aguirresarobe shot the film on 35mm, which gives it a gorgeous cinematic look.
Levine has a secret weapon in Hoult, who impresses mightily as zombie R. Hoult’s body language and tender line delivery sells the role perfectly, and his demeanour is believably zombie-esque, especially with a layer of impressive make-up that further sells the illusion. Meanwhile, as Julie, Australian newcomer Palmer looks remarkably like Kristen Stewart, inviting even more Twilight comparisons. However, Palmer is a terrific choice; she’s the hot version of Stewart, and she can actually act. Indeed, whereas Stewart is emotionless and stiff, Palmer is a genuinely expressive actress able to convey emotion and nuances. Hoult and Palmer share wonderful chemistry, too. Fortunately, there’s solid support from a number of actors, including Malkovich as the badass military leader, Rob Corddry who’s often amusing as R’s kind-hearted zombie pal, and the lovely Analeigh Tipton playing Julie’s best friend.
Warm Bodies is no masterpiece and it won’t pick up any Oscars, but it’s a sweet, good-natured romantic comedy, and I was surprised by how much it won me over by the end. Comparing it to Twilight is wrong; Warm Bodies is so much smarter, thematically deeper and charismatic than the Stephanie Meyer franchise, and it doesn’t deserve to be associated with Twilight. Although the movie is primarily aimed at young ladies, it will also appeal to males, who won’t be embarrassed to be watching this with their dates.