A film review by Craig J. Koban February 6, 2013


2013, PG-13, 97 mins.

R: Nicholas Hoult / Julie: Teresa Palmer / Nora: Analeigh Tipton / M: Rob Corddry / Grigio: John Malkovich

Written and directed by Jonathan Levine / Based on the novel by Isaac Marion.

WARM BODIES has one of craziest – and most grisly – meet-cutes in movie history.  

During it a young woman named Julie (the fetching Teresa Palmer) is leading a group of her friends sent by her father into a post-apocalyptic/zombie-ravaged city for some much needed medical supplies for their enclave of human survivors.  A pack of flesh-hungry members of the undead attack her group.  One of the zombies, R (Nicolas Hoult) jumps on Julie’s boyfriend, repeatedly smashes his head on the ground, kills him, and then proceeds to gorge on his brains.  While doing this he locks eyes with the tomboyishly hot Leslie, packing a pump-action shotgun and decimating R’s companions.  R doesn’t kill or eat her, mostly because he’s just enamored with her.  He’s in love…or at least he thinks.  After all...he is a zombie. 

Based on the Isaac Marion novel, WARM BODIES was written and directed by Jonathan Levine, whom previously in 50/50 established himself as some sort of miracle man for making an endearingly hilarious film about a man suffering from cancer; it was some sort of delicate balancing act, but Levine managed to pull it all off rather successfully.  In WARM BODIES he is asked to perhaps do something even more impossibly difficult, which is to make a feel-good romantic comedy with heart, soul, and tenderness…that just happens to be set in a zombie-plagued hellscape and has its pair of stair crossed lovers be a human and a ghoulish brain eater.  

As utterly bat-shit silly as this whole premise is, WARM BODIES is a highly rare commodity for how it manages to slyly embrace and subvert two increasingly overused and stale genres – the romcom and the zombie-survival horror film – while ingeniously giving a sly wink to one particular William Shakespeare play.  That the film manages to do all of this with such brazen confidence and fluidly is to its credit. 



Perhaps the biggest game-changing alteration to the zombie genre here is that it finally places emphasis on their perspective of things and makes them, as perverse as it sounds, engaging and likable characters.  R does not remember his name or even how he died ("I wish I could introduce myself, but I don’t remember my name anymore, but my hoodie would suggest that I was unemployed” he chimes in on an increasingly amusing voice over narration track, revealing his inner undead thoughts).  He just pathetically ekes out a life of constant lurching, grunting, and flesh and brain eating.  He does not particularly like it, but his condition is just a natural and innate predatory impulse: he just does it (“I shouldn’t be so hard on myself.  After all, we’re all dead”).    He never once denies his hunger for eating people, but he nonetheless does it to stay alive (“It’s kind of a bummer”). 

He lives at an abandoned airport and even has a friend in M (Rob Corddrey, hilarious in his scenes with Hoult as they both communicate with monosyllabic groans and the occasional attempt at a syllable or word).  R coops up in an abandoned airplane where he houses all of the items that he has collected over the years (he even likes old records of Bruce Springsteen because they “sound more alive”).  Eating brains provides a natural high for him and his companions, as it allows them to see the memories of their victims (in a cool bit of retrofitted mythologizing).   This, of course, brings us to his meet-cute with Julie.  R’s eating of her boyfriend’s brains lets R see his memories of falling in love with her, which, in turn, somehow jump starts R’s own peculiar transformation.  His heart begins to beat, his flesh gains more color, and he even can enunciate more.  He befriends and saves Julie from the rest of his famished clan that would no doubt have killed her.  He takes her back to his airplane pad…and this is where the real preposterous fun of the film begins. 

R’s attempts at wooing over Julie’s heart have some serious roadblocks, mostly because (a) he’s a walking corpse and (b) Julie and her human survivors have been trained to shoot them in the head on sight.  Part of the film’s sneaky charm is in Hoult’s thankless performance, as he struggles – through trial and error – to communicate verbally and via body language with Julie and win over her trust and affection (that, and he tells himself – via his thoughts – “Don’t be creepy, don’t be creepy!”).  Slowly, but surely, R makes the improbable transition from stuttering and uncoordinated zombie to a socially awkward teen suitor who's becoming more human by the minute when around Julie.   Palmer – a naturally radiant screen presence with a Rachel McAdams-like thousand watt smile – also has a tricky role: she plays things straight and with restraint and poise, having to juggle initial repulsion and horror that segues into compassion and understanding for R and his kind.  The more R humanizes himself, the more Julie begins to fall for him as well. 

This is all such a damning and inordinately challenging task of homogenizing all of these wickedly divergent tones, but Levine remarkably makes it work while making some cheeky referencing to ROMEO AND JULIET (the names R and Julie clearly allude to the two doomed Shakespearian lovers, and R’s friend M is a stand-in for Mercutio) and the film’s greatest sight gag nod to the Bard has Julie on a balcony being greeted by a puppy-dog-eyed R yearningly gazing up at her.  R and Julie’s increasing fondness for one another is really complicated, seeing as her father (John Malkovich, unexpectedly not hamming it up here) is the leader of a militia that wants to eradicate zombies once and for all.  The situation for everyone grows even more problematic when R’s other zombie buddies begin to exhibit his humanizing transformative traits while the really bad zombies, called "Bonies" (zombies that are so unthinking and savage that they have ripped off all of their flesh and are now just merciless killing machines), have discovered that R and his posse are changing, making them targets as well. 

The film gets bogged down in an obligatory three-way shoot-em-up battle between human survivors, the zombies, and the Bonies, during which we are greeted with half-hearted CGI effects and perfunctory boo-moments that distract from the overall sinful pleasures of the central romance contained within.  Yet, there’s no denying the absolute freshness of approach and liberating novelty of WARM BODIES.  If the film were too self-aware and self-congratulatory in its cinematic citations it would have been smugly off-putting to both die-hard purists of horror and romcoms.   Yet, Levine finds just the right tone and tweaks and twists just enough of the staler and overused genre conventions here to make WARM BODIES twistedly enjoyable and fiendishly unique.  That, and after countless TV and film iterations of zombies as unholy and decrepit monsters, this film manages to find the inner humanity lurking within all of them that wants to be liberated.  As Hoult’s R passionately relays in one voiceover early in the film, “I just want to connect.” 

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