Finally, a zombie flick with some brains! See what I did there? “Warm Bodies” (released Feb. 1) is not your typical undead fare. Not since 2009’s “Zombieland” has there been such a highly entertaining and clever movie about the walking dead. All too often, these films rely too heavily on mindless violence and gore, leaving us as brain-dead as the ghouls onscreen. Based on Isaac Marion’s 2011 novel of the same name, the movie was directed by Jonathan Levine (“The Wackness,” “50/50”), who puts an amusing twist on one of the most iconic and familiar genres that the Hollywood machine has to offer.
However, the most curious appeal is the fact that we are asked to sympathize with an entity that wants to devour our flesh, which is a major change of pace for a zombie movie.
Unfortunately, the movie does start off a bit on the slow side. We open on the movie’s protagonist, R (Nicholas Hoult), a zombie who can’t remember anything about his mortal life except the first letter of his name. Resembling a grown-up version of Elliot from “E.T.” with his red hoodie and blue jeans, he stumbles around a ghoul-infested airport, one of the film’s main locations. Despite all his grunting and bad posture, R runs an articulate inner monologue that is narrated for the audience. He is a Socrates among a pack of mindless dodo birds, philosophizing on whether there is more to life than just being one of the walking dead. Yes, he’ll eat your brains, but at least he’s conflicted about it (and when he says they’re the best part, he almost sounds reasonable). Hoult does a fine job in a role that doesn’t demand much, allowing us to laugh at his narrations, one of the movie’s more clever aspects.
Nevertheless, everything changes when R meets Julie (Teresa Palmer), a member of the human resistance whose group is ambushed while scavenging for supplies. For reasons beyond his understanding, R saves Julie, bringing her back to his home in an abandoned airplane that has more tchotchkes than a grandmother’s bookshelf (among which is a sweet vinyl collection). When around her, R acts like an awkward teenage boy, telling himself not to be creepy despite his current biological status. It is fun to watch the budding chemistry between the two and the zombie’s unfamiliarity with social norms. Soon enough, R realizes he has feelings for this woman, which causes his heart to begin beating again. This plot point sets up a chain of events that eventually leads to the movie’s hopeful ending reminiscent of “Fight Club.”
Although this is more of a love story, the filmmakers did a nice job of creating the whole post-apocalyptic landscape of abandoned neighborhoods, cities and roads to appease any fan of “The Walking Dead.”
Another thing worth noting was the cinematography. Paler colors are used for scenes in the present to connote a sense of hopelessness while warmer hues are used for flashbacks to a time when things were simpler. These occur when R eats the brains of a person to gain their memories in some sort of weird LSD-like trip. Two of the movie’s most recognizable actors are John Malkovich and Rob Corddry. The former plays Julie’s father, distraught from the zombification of his wife, unable to trust anyone or have a relationship with his daughter. He approaches the role with an intensity and coldness that only Malkovich can do. Corddry, usually known for his comedic roles, plays R’s best friend Marcus, a fellow zombie. The two don’t say much at first, but when they do finally have a bro moment, you will be chuckling in your seat.
For some time, many people were dismissing “Warm Bodies” as “Twilight” with zombies. However, the main difference between the two is that this movie doesn’t completely suck. It carries a surprising amount of heart and has emotional depth to spare, enough to reduce George A. Romero into a fit of tears. Furthermore, the movie makes literary allusions to “Romeo and Juliet” as well as “Beauty and the Beast.”
For once, we are not focusing on some virus or a group of frightened teenagers pent up in a house somewhere. We are focusing on young love and the triumph of the human spirit. And hey, if a mindless zombie can find love, then there’s still hope for the rest of us.