Film Review: Warm Bodies

A misunderstood zombie falls in love in a genre mash-up that's surprisingly sweet and funny.

An emotionally numb, destructive boy falls in love with strong, vibrant girl. And it changes both of them. This plot might describe a typical teen romance, but in the case of Warm Bodies, the boy, R, is a zombie and the girl, Julie, a zombie fighter.

R shuffles around an abandoned airport, grunting, with only dim memories of what came before. Although R is unable to talk, his opening voiceover fills the audience in on what it’s like to be a zombie. Then, for the most part, the nonverbal acting prowess of Nicholas Hoult, who plays R, takes over. When a pack of roving zombies, including R, attacks a group of humans, he eats the brains of Julie’s boyfriend and is instantly smitten, since they provide warm-fuzzy flashbacks to their courtship. He saves Julie (Teresa Palmer) from being eaten and takes her back to his hideout, a 747 filled with knickknacks and a vinyl record player. In an emotional leap, he manages to utter a few words to the girl. She remains unconvinced that he won’t gobble her up when the time comes.

After trying and failing to escape, Julie tentatively embraces the friendship that R offers. But she needs food, and eventually she’ll need to return to the survivors’ compound. As in most horror movies, the action is amped up by the duo taking unnecessary risks that inevitably lead to confrontations with the undead. But their attempts bind them to each other, and eventually to their joint mission: finding a way to cure the zombies. R’s growing affection for Julia appears to add some color to his skin, even making him feel cold. He can string together words again. Could love be the answer?

If vampire movies sublimate sexual tension, love between a zombie and a human might be about escaping depression, connecting with someone else, and—in this case literally—coming alive. Isaac Marion, author of the novel Warm Bodies, describes writing the book as he was undergoing an emotional deep thaw, and it’s likely others will find inspiration in his metaphorical take on that experience. There are also a couple of coy allusions to Romeo and Juliet, from a balcony scene to the leads’ names, but it’s equally interesting to compare the movie to films like Beauty and the Beast, Ghost or Twilight. Pairings between humans and supernatural creatures are nothing new, but the grotesqueness of a zombie certainly takes “opposites attract” to a whole new level.

A love story between a zombie and a human could have easily ended up seeming like a bad “Saturday Night Live” skit. Yet for a movie that combines so many genres, including horror, apocalypse, romance and comedy, there’s a remarkable control of tone. In the screening I attended, there was more audible laughter than I hear in most comedies. The suspense is enough to give you a jolt, and the romance is sweet as it rambles toward its foregone conclusion. Writer-director Jonathan Levine, who made a comedy-drama out of having cancer in 50/50, deserves credit for making all these moments connect with audiences. If Twilight were funnier, had a more proactive heroine and an uglier hero, it might be Warm Bodies.