Much like the undead they depict, forever coming back for more, every time it seems the whole ‘zombie thing’ has been completely played out, another film comes along which makes you reassess the situation, and think “oh, okay, one more – go on then”. Last year, Juan of the Dead gave us a distinctively Cuban take on such an apocalypse, though I am sure by the time World War Z finally rolls round like the live-action game of zombie Katamari Damacy it appears to be, the cynicism will kick in again, but for now, Warm Bodies is proof there’s life in the old flesh-eaters yet.
If it plays fast and loose with zombie lore, remember that zombies have from the days of Romero been used as an allegorical device, and while what they represent here is just a vaguely political “other” with which to create a conflict for its “star-cross’d lovers” (the Romeo and Juliet comparison, while there, has been somewhat overplayed in reviews – it’s alluded to in the character names, and there’s a balcony scene, but I don’t think it’s trying to be clever or serious with it). It changes the fundamentals to suit the story in much the same way 28 Days Later did with theirs, and is all the more satisfying for it, successfully merging the love story with the zombie world, rather than just jarringly stitching the two together, just as director Jonathan Levine successfully melded comedy and tragedy in his previous work, the rather good 50/50.
Also, zombies aren’t real. Warm Bodies admirably wears its heart on its sleeve, and any zombologists, or whatever they like to be called, up in arms about the central conceit (that love is the “cure”) are probably the same people who gave The Matrix a pass when Trinity’s kiss brings Neo back to life (see also: the magical properties of Pokémon tears in Pokémon: The First Movie). And if there’s next to no gore, that’s because it’s just not really a requirement here, and isn’t missed.
Regardless, all this would be for not if it weren’t for Nicholas Hoult as “R”, who gives perhaps the best zombie performance since Bub in Day of the Dead. Admittedly, he has a lot more to play with in his role, but by that token, he also has to carry the whole film on his shoulders. Hoult totally nails it with his wide-eyed vacant stares and convincing shambling, yet also able to pull off comedy, romance and all the awkwardness, both physical and emotional, it entails. Even just the way he runs is hilariously perfect – and yes, these zombies can run, but only occasionally and hardly graceful with it either. Much of the humour does ultimately boil down to “it’s funny, because he’s a zombie”, a one-joke premise, for sure, yet it surprisingly works. It gives cutesy indie-movie quirky tropes such as a boy and a girl bonding over vinyl records an extra layer, a dead format dusted off and brought back to life. You could even argue this is the natural evolution of “mumblecore”, in a very literal sense, though Hoult’s smart and dry voice-over gives him an opportunity to extend beyond monosyllables (the story is told principally from the zombie’s perspective, another plus point that sets Warm Bodies apart).
It also helps that his object of attention, Julie, is nicely played by Teresa Palmer, who is neither a moody anguished dreamgirl nor cookie-cutter kick-ass heroine, but instead feels like a real person, and worth dying/living/undying for. And as their respective friends, Rob Corddry and Analeigh Tipton give fine comic support. Only John Malkovich is an unexpected dud, looking disinterested throughout his small amount of screen time, simply there as the ‘edler named star’ to offset any ‘just for teens’ stigma. Speaking of which, comparisons to Twilight are unfair. There’s no denying the success of those films played a big factor in this film getting greenlit (it too is distributed by Summit Entertainment), but this is far more self-aware and in on the jokes with the audience, not unlike, say, the recent Fright Night remake.
Some components though don’t quite ring true, feeling like holdovers from the source material that would never have found their way into any original script had it been worked from the ground up (though nothing quite as odd and baffling as found in The Hunger Games). R’s flashbacks to Julie’s boyfriend’s memories when he eats his brains (yes, a la Planet Terror’s “I’m gonna eat your brains, and gain your knowledge”) don’t quite work, in the way they are rendered, or placed in the narrative, or just as a general idea. In fact, I found that all way creepier than any necrophilic connotation in the central relationship – like when Elijah Wood steals Jim Carrey’s past to woo Kate Winslet in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. There are actually a fair few logic leaps, an awful lot of toing-and-froing between locations for seemingly no good reason, and the presence of the Boneys (evil skellingtons representing an irreversible stage of zombification) is simply to create a threat out of nothing, or in this case, out of juddery low-end CG animation that may be even worse than the last-minute I Am Legend vampires. But the love story at the centre of Warm Bodies is so delightfully played, funny and charming, its blunders elsewhere can be largely forgiven.
Around this time last year, Chronicle also offered an alternative take on a well-worn subgenre, rising above its very obvious flaws, and ended up being one of my favourites of 2012. Once 2013’s through, could be that Warm Bodies occupies that same slot this time round.