Fans of The Walking Dead may criticize Warm Bodies for its light take on gore and mayhem, but they should appreciate that the movie, directed by Jonathan Levine (50/50) and based on the book by Isaac Marion, has more, er, meat to it, especially when it comes to character development and humor. The setting is a post-apocalyptic world. Everyone who hasn’t been turned into a zombie (or even worse, a nasty skeletal variant of zombie called a “boney”) is hacking out a new world order behind steel walls in a society run by grim Big Brother-type Grigio (John Malkovich). From time to time, young recruits are sent outside the wall to forage for food and meds. On one foray, Grigio’s daughter Julie (Teresa Palmer), accompanied by her boyfriend Perry (Dave Franco), best pal Nora (Analeigh Tipton) and others, heads straight into zombie trouble, with more or less the expected results. Except . . . Julie isn’t eaten, but instead taken to shelter by R (Nicholas Hoult), an undead who, while noshing on Perry’s brain, catches one glimpse of the blonde warrior and is entranced.
Talk about a meet cute.
Warm Bodies is told from the perspective of R; while he can barely speak intelligibly, his inner voice ponders the meaning of life and wonders what he used to do. He misses the days when people communicated, which Levine humorously shows with a flashback to commuters staring intently into their iPhones. When R isn’t meeting up with his friend M (Rob Corddry) for a knuckle bump and a few shared grunts, he hides away in an abandoned airplane (the movie takes place in large part at an airport), where he plays vinyl on a record player. As he later tells Julie, who chides his old-fashioned taste, the music sounds alive in this format, and indeed, Levine uses a playful, evocative soundtrack to provide an aural counterpart to this quirky, sweet, teen romance/zombie slasher genre-bender.
As Julie comes to accept R, or at least become satisfied that he won’t eat her, the two foster a bond. This causes R’s deathly pallor to take on a ruddier hue, and his stiff stumble to change into something more like a slacker’s gait, as it grows stronger. Inevitably, young love meets its first challenge—in this case, the fact that R ate Perry’s brain—and we are left to wonder if the magic can be recaptured. Can Julie get Grigio to accept R for who he is, or is the mere introduction of her heart’s desire bound to set Daddy off on a shooting rampage?
The road to the resolution of the movie’s mixed bag of cinematic improbabilities is peppered with surprising humor and unexpected sweetness, even if the finale becomes little more than a zombie-versus-boney crush, except that this time, the zombies are aiding the humans. Hoult is entirely engaging to the point that you almost forget to wonder how stinky R must be, what with carrying brains in his pockets and having blood and gore smeared into his hoodie. Palmer is engaging, quick-witted, and an ideal love interest. Tipton steals the show with her droll take on what’s happening: Informed of Julie’s secret boyfriend, she mulls it over and says, “It’s hard to meet guys . . . especially after the apocalypse,” making it sound not so much airheaded as dead on. Corddry, so often cast as the wacky and foul-mouthed buddy, is unexpectedly sweet. The only wrong note in this otherwise excellent movie is Malkovich, who seems unsure as to what level of his standard creepy-weird vibe to play.