Watching “Warm Bodies”
Just yesterday, I found myself explaining why vampires are more interesting than zombies to my colleagues. “Vampires often have a tragic backstory,” I said. “They have personalities and motivations. Zombies don’t have any of those things. They just shuffle around and eat people.”
However, there are exceptions: The new zombie romantic comedy “Warm Bodies” suggests that zombies can think and feel — that they can, in fact, be interesting. Which is actually a pretty radical twist on the zombie genre, and one that I initially had a hard time accepting. But “Warm Bodies” is cute and likable, and I found my objections melting away. It doesn’t hurt that our protagonist, a teen zombie named R, is played by Nicholas Hoult, a cute and likable actor.
Directed by Jonathan Levine, “Warm Bodies” is the only movie I can think of that tells its story from the point of view of the zombie. R tells us his story as he shuffles around the abandoned airport that he and hundreds of other zombies call home. We learn that he cannot remember who he was before he was killed by a zombie, or his name, or much of anything about himself, but that he enjoys listening to vinyl records and looking at old photographs. He is, in other words, a hipster zombie.
When it comes time to feed, R joins up with a pack of zombies and heads out into the city, searching for humans. The humans live in a walled-off compound, but teams of zombie hunters occasionally set forth with the goal of killing as many zombies as possible. And when R encounters the zombie-hunting Julie (Teresa Palmer), it’s love at first sight. Of course, this being a zombie movie, R kills Julie’s boyfriend (Dave Franco) and eats his brain, which allows him to access and experience the boyfriend’s memories.
“Warm Bodies” is clever and sweet — at times, a little too clever and sweet. For instance, R’s self-aware, ironic narration raises questions: Are zombies capable of intelligent and rational thought, but incapable of expressing themselves? How is it that R can think such witty things, but can’t communicate with his best friend (Rob Corddry) in anything other than a soulful grunt? And the film’s best moments mostly come in the first half, when the film’s unusual combination of romance, comedy, violence and horror work to keep viewers slightly off kilter. Yes, R is sweet, but he’s also capable of murder, and “Warm Bodies” is most interesting when it explores this dynamic.
The more time R spends with Julie, SPOILER ALERT! DO NOT READ ANY FURTHER IF YOU DO NOT WANT TO KNOW WHAT HAPPENS! the more human he becomes, and the change is contagious; when R and Julie cross paths with R’s zombie pals, the zombie pals also begin to feel more human. This leads to the film’s optimistic climax, in which the zombies join forces with the humans to defeat a dangerous breed of skeletal super-zombies known as Bonies, and humans and zombies learn to live side by side. In the end, the way to defeat the zombies is to shower them with compassion, rather than shoot them in the head. The film’s simple message can basically be summed up in three words: Love conquers all.
“Warm Bodies” is a likable, if minor, entry in the small zombie comedy subgenre that includes “Shaun of the Dead” and “Zombieland.” It isn’t quite as sharp or clever as either of those films, but it contains moments that are truly funny (the moment R first sees Julie made me laugh out loud) and even moving. Toward the end, the film’s goodheartedness is something of a liability: As “Warm Bodies” becomes less edgy, it also becomes less interesting, though Hoult and Palmer are a fun pair, and I never tired of watching them. (I’ve been a fan of Hoult ever since watching him in the British TV show “Skins.”)
By the end of the film, R is a real boy again, which neatly skirts the unsettling question of whether a person can really fall in love with a rotting corpse. In a way, “Warm Bodies” is one of the most optimistic films in recent memory, convinced of the basic goodness of humans (and zombies). I remain skeptical that zombies can really change for the better (I’m more of a “Dawn of the Dead” type of person), but thanks to “Warm Bodies, I’m open to the possibility.
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