We can thank the Twilight series for the veritable explosion of fantasy- and supernatural-themed teen romance mash-up that’s filled and will continue to fill movie theaters for the foreseeable future.
We can also thank The Walking Dead for mainstreaming the 45-year-old undead (a.k.a. zombie) sub-genre. Additional thanks will likely go to Warm Bodies, a post-apocalyptic undead/teen romance adapted from Isaac Marian’s YA (young adult) novel by Jonathan Levine (50/50, The Wackness, All the Girls Love Mandy Lane). Minus one or two narrative and/or budget-related problems, Warm Bodies ultimately emerges as a surprisingly charming, delightful post-modern update on William Shakespeare’s “Romeo & Juliet” (with zombies).
When we meet “R” (Nicholas Hoult), he’s shuffling and shambling through an abandoned airport terminal. Via self-deprecating voiceover, R shares his thoughts and feelings about his after-life as a cannibalistic zombie (simply called “Corpses” in Warm Bodies’ post-apocalyptic parlance). He longs for connection and meaning, but can’t find it as a member of the undead. He also can’t articulate his thoughts and preoccupations into words; he can only grunt his way through a semi-reasonable facsimile of a conversation with his best friend, M (Rob Corddry), a fellow inhabitant of the airport terminal. R also can’t remember his name or anything about his life before he rose from the dead to feast on the ever-shrinking human population.
R replaces his non-existent memories with the detritus of pre-apocalyptic life, including a vinyl collection and record player he stores in an airliner that serves as his home away from the airport terminal. On occasion, a different kind of hunger takes over R. Along with M and a non-legion of the undead, R shambles out of the airport in search of nourishment. R’s zombie troop stumbles headlong into a gore-filled encounter with human scavengers led by Perry (Dave Franco), who R promptly defeats and devours, ingesting Perry’s brains to gain access to the latter’s memories pre- and post-apocalypse, and Perry’s girlfriend, Julie (Teresa Palmer), who R saves, covering her in undead goo to hide her humanness from his fellow undead. Armed with Perry’s memories, R takes Julie back to the airport terminal to woo her.
Warm Bodies is at its most engaging in those scenes as R and Julie, updated analogues for Shakespeare’s “Romeo & Juliet” as their names and predicament obviously indicate, attempt to connect despite R’s undead status. R’s inarticulateness functions as a semi-clever take on teen romance. He can’t tell Julie how he feels about her, but she learns almost everything she needs to learn through his kitschy taste in music (he’s a romantic at undead heart), the various and diverse objects he’s accumulated on his shambles into the (once) human world, and his all-around gentle behavior toward her. But even if their unlikely romance succeeds, R and Julie have other obstacles to overcome, including Julie’s father, General Grigio (John Malkovich), the undead-hating, authoritarian leader of the walled mini-city Julie calls home, and for R and the other undead, the Bonies, the desiccated, but still ravenous remnants of the undead who’ve left every semblance or suggestion of their humanity behind.
In theory, the Bonies should make for semi-imaginative villains, completely non-human and thus easily hated, but as executed on screen via under-rendered CG, they’re nothing less (and often far more) risible than they should have been. When they make their periodic appearances, Warm Bodies looks and feels like a cheap knock-off. The Bonies also give Levine (and Marion, to be fair) an overly easy, simplistic way to resolve the human-undead conflict. Ultimately, however, the Bonies are only an inconsequential speed bump. Levine handles the core romance unironically, making both the stakes and the resolution of R’s courtship of Julie both meaningful and poignant. Add to that an original (if not quite subversive), rule-changing take on the undead, and Warm Bodies more than makes up for its minor narrative and cinematic deficiencies.
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