I expected nothing from Warm Bodies, thank you very much. It’s a romantic zombie comedy – or “Rom-Zom-Com” – about a disillusioned member of the walking dead who falls for a living girl played by an actress who looks suspiciously like Kristen Stewart. I was hoping, dear readers, for a relatively painless “Twilight” rip-off at the very most. Maybe a few decent gags left over from Shaun of the Dead, whatever, I’d take them. “Just get me through the running time” is all I asked for. What I actually got was a reinvention of the whole zombie genre, and easily the first great movie of 2013 (yes, really), all because it has something that no zombie movie has ever had before.
I was actually originally going to write “hope,” but, apparently, without hipsters there would be no hope. In Warm Bodies that is. The savior of humanity isn’t so much the potentially ill-fated romance between a zombie named “R” and a woman named “Julie” (ahem), but the clinging nostalgia for a seemingly better age we ourselves have never personally experienced, and the will to bring it back to life through our own actions. R’s addiction to vinyl records has less to with “better sound,” as he insists, and more to do with an affection for better times that, with a little optimism and pluck, can once again come to pass if we prevail over a culture that rewards actual fear more than actually overcoming fear. Through this, perhaps alone amongst the zombie movie firmament, Warm Bodies espouses a healthy philosophy of overcoming all odds in a genre previously dominated by absolute doom (gloom optional).
R (Nicholas Hoult) is a flesh-eating zombie with an interior monologue not unlike a typical teenaged running commentary, with downtrodden observations about the status quo, anxious self-doubt and dry humor. During a food run, R chomps down on the brains of Dave Franco, ingesting his memories in the process, and forming an attachment to Franco’s girlfriend Julie (Teresa Palmer). Clinging to the last vestiges of his humanity, he masks Julie’s scent in necrotic filth and takes him back to his swinging bachelor pad at the airport, full of hoarded knick-knacks and thematically appropriate retro albums.
Julie wants none of this, obviously. It takes a very long time for her to come around to the realization that R is more than just the usual brainless zombie. Their eventual romantic tension has so many plausible obstacles that by the time anything actually comes of it, the kooky subplot feels impressively real. In other words, Warm Bodies is everything I always wanted from the Twilight franchise, demonstrating a healthy respect for horror convention in service of a courtship process that seems futile, and is in all practicality really gross, but ultimately proves touching because of the believable journey taken by both lovers together.
The connection between R and Julie, and the memories of better days it inspires, soon spreads to the rest of R’s zombie kind, in particular a sympathetic bub played by Rob Corddry. But zombies overcoming their doldrums seems somehow less plausible than real humans overcoming their limited world view, and sympathies soon shift from effectively malleable to dramatically in favor of the repressed cannibalistic corpse herds that the typical audience member mows down like crab grass on their favorite first-person shooter. Zombies looked human all along… how dickish was it of us to de-humanize them for all these years?
Warm Bodies never loses sight of the fact that it’s a zombie flick, with traditional Romero-esque conventions used unironically for maximum dramatic effect, and just plain ironically when it’s funnier that way. The action plays just as well as the comedy, the comedy plays just as well as the romance. There’s actual horror, but it comes less from the frequent zombie attacks than from the protagonists' wholly understandable despair for the future of the human race, a concern as common to real teenagers as it is to the ones in a fictional zombie apocalypse. It also comes in the form of “boneys,” a type of living dead that have given up on their past, ripped off all their flesh and reduced themselves to absolute monstrousness. For a movie about humanizing the great faceless monster of our generation, the boneys sure do make great cannon fodder, but at least Warm Bodies is aware of enough of that hypocrisy to make a point of apologizing for it.
Warm Bodies really is a welcome change of pace, subverting familiar trends while getting their original meaning across at the same time. It’s the kind of movie that makes you slap your head and go, “Oh, right, these movies were great once!” Thankfully, Warm Bodies never exalts itself beyond a mere horror comedy, and yet that singularly unambitious framework proves to be the perfect delivery system for something undeniably human and, I still can't believe I'm saying this, even meaningful. Warm Bodies plays by the rules, and wins the game.