Who knew that it would take zombies to bring the mainstream romantic comedy back to life? In the delightfully genre mashing Warm Bodies, horror, romance, action, and sharp wit come together in the best all around package of any film so far this early year. It might be aimed and marketed to a somewhat younger audience that will undoubtedly eat it up, but it becomes a universally loveable story of hope, friendship, loss, and unity that succeeds because it aims high. It never talks down to its core demographic, making it an easily approachable film for anyone of any age with a hankering for brain eating or heart warming.
Following the unspecified downfall of humanity to a zombie apocalypse, a youthful looking walking corpse known simply as R (Nicholas Hoult) shuffles about his abandoned airport home and internally muses about not remembering who he was and how he died. After a band of surviving humans get attacked during a mission to bring supplies back to a gated community, R helps a young woman named Julie (Teresa Palmer) lie low until it’s safe to leave the airport without a pack of even more ravenous zombies ripping her to shreds. Over time and as the two make their way back to Julie’s home and her tempermental father (John Malkovich), R begins to develop feelings for Julie, and she begins to wonder if his gradual awakening signifies a cure for this plague on humanity.
It’s a hard film to explain and harder still to buy into simply by reading or reciting the premise alone, but 50/50 and All the Boys Love Mandy Lane director Jonathan Levine does an exemplary job in crafting a believable world that this story could take place within. It might sound like a lot of different elements slapped together to mask a lack of creativity, but Levine constantly comes up with ways of turning what’s actually a simple fairy tale narrative on its head.
What Levine creates here is a world that could never exist even if a zombie apocalypse did happen, and while he never shies away from the scares and nastiness that such a scenario would entail, he creates an elegy for a planet much like ours that’s desperately in need of something to believe in. It’s so simple that it works quite nicely as a parable for our own world and an awakening that would be welcome in those we often interact with on a daily basis and a rallying cry against passive living in much the same ways that Romero’s zombie films were against consumerism and right wing politics.
Levine seems to realize that the zombie film has already become diluted through over saturation and a lot of admittedly crappy theatrical outings that come a dime a dozen, which is why he seems so capable a director to make a romance blossom within these parameters. And once again, the love story is so gleefully simple that he doesn’t hide how it’s simply a porting of Romeo and Juliet. It’s a film with nothing to hide, and a desire to entertain multiple audiences at once in the most agreeable of ways.
By having nothing to hide and unabashedly going for high entertainment with subtle subtext, Levine allows the chemistry between Hoult and Palmer to blossom organically rather than creating some sort of a meet-cute situation. The means by which R begins to fall for Julie are interesting to think about and too creative to spoil here for those who don’t already know. The relationship starts from a sense of melancholy before Julie even truly fears R. That comes later, naturally, as does their uneasy alliance, their eventual friendship, and her protectiveness of him. The love story doesn’t even really take hold until the final act of the film, and it’s a smartly played move that manages to keep the audience’s interest piqued the entire time.
The movie belongs to Hoult – who does the oblivious zombie-with-a-heart thing really well – but he gets scenes stolen from him by Rob Corddry as his particularly astute undead BFF. Palmer plays a tough girl well, even if the film hints tantalizingly at a stronger and lengthier backstory that got lost along the way. Malkovich shows up in a small, but pivotal role, and does the usual snarling and barking he’s brought to similar roles in the past, but it works.
Despite being based on a best selling novel by Isaac Marion that already had a built in audience who would appreciate this sort of thing, almost all of the success for this thing working should be given to Jonathan Levine. Without a director that could keep things on point, Warm Bodies could have collapsed under the weight of too many competing elements. With Levine at the helm, it’s an exemplary effort that should resonate with most audiences from teens to the elderly.