Writer-director Jonathan Levine (50/50, The Wackness) does a pretty excellent job of adapting Isaac Marion’s novel, Warm Bodies, for the big screen. Nicholas Hoult (best remembered as the young lad opposite Hugh Grant in About A Boy) plays R, an introspective zombie who is struggling to accept his place in a post-apocalyptic world, when he meets – and manages not to eat – the beautiful Julie (Teresa Palmer). Instead, R drags her back to his pad (a deserted aeroplane), so he can keep her safe from the other brain-munching zombies, and show off his awesome vinyl collection. Although terrified at first and desperate to get back to the relative safety of the human stronghold, Julie goes along with R and slowly warms to him, while he in turn begins to warm…literally. The longer they stay together, the more alive R begins to feel and behave, which causes myriad problems for the humans, zombies and the skeletal “Bonies” – the worst kind of dead people.
While the story alludes heavily to Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, from the naming of its characters to the over-arching story of star-crossed lovers from rival “families”, there are also narrative and thematic similarities between Warm Bodies and that other impossible romance, Beauty and the Beast. Much of the film is narrated by R’s smartly ironic inner monologue, and the film succeeds where it could so easily have failed by focusing on its characters and their burgeoning romance, with its genre commitments as a zombie movie coming a distant second.
When Warm Bodies does address issues pertaining to the undead, Levine clearly knows his stuff. Much of the comedy relies on the audience having a working knowledge of zombie mythology, and the novelty of the film’s hero also being its monster. However, Levine is also willing to break the rules and manipulate standard zombie traits in interesting – some might even say controversial – directions. But only curmudgeonly purists will fail to glean unabashed pleasure from this respectful yet fresh and inventive take on the genre that manages to be hip and unashamedly romantic all at once. Comparisons will surely be made between this film and the Twilight series, but they are flimsy and superficial at best, with Summit Entertainment only too happy to poke fun at its earlier franchise in the Warm Bodies marketing campaign.
Much of the film’s success must be credited to Hoult and Palmer, who really sell the ridiculous concept that Julie might ever entertain a necrophilic romance, to the point that when they do finally kiss, it proves a celebratory, rather than disgusting, moment. Rob Corddry provides strong support as R’s best bud, M (also a zombie), while John Malkovich is on hand to play antagonist as General Grigio, leader of the human resistance and, rather inconveniently, also Julie’s dad.
Warm Bodies also boasts a killer soundtrack, featuring a slew of 80s and 90s pop and rock standards that almost always hit the right comedic note. That said, the script does on occasion have a habit of repeating some of its stronger gags once too often, but for the most part remains lively, hip and most importantly, fun. It makes passing observations about the lack of social interaction in today’s society and how consumerism has turned us all into shuffling, munching zombies, but fortunately the film is far less interested in spinning that broken record again, and more inspired by its central love story. Edgar Wright can rest easy in the knowledge that his 2004 classic Shaun of the Dead remains the best example of the admittedly small zom-rom-com genre, but Warm Bodies is shuffling awkwardly right there behind it, trying not to stare or act too creepy.