There are so many reasons to hate Warm Bodies before seeing it and so many ways that the film could have gone wrong. Zombies are about as overplayed as any monster to shed blood on the big screen these days. On top of that, the twist to Jonathan Levine’s latest feature can be summed up in a few simple and irritating words, “zombies in love.” That’s right, it turns out that in all the years since George Romero’s Night Of The Living Dead, the cure to zombism was always just getting those shuffling corpses to fall in love. And yet, somehow against all odds and logic, the film works. It’s something that’s never existed before and that no one realized the world needed: a John Hughes zombie movie. Yes, Warm Bodies is sickly sweet romantic fantasy, but that romance is sincere and comes from the heart, a delicious fleshy heart…and only brains taste better than those.
Nicholas Hoult (that boy from About A Boy all grown up) stars as a very special zombie. It’s post-apocalyptic zombie days, with humanity’s few survivors shoved into a corner of a barely disguised Montreal while the flesh eaters roam the earth. Hoult’s no brain dead shuffler though. He’s fully conscious and through the opening scenes his voiceover explains the dullness of his existence: roaming around at a snail’s pace, moaning to communicate to his only friend (a frickin’ hilarious Rob Corddry) and collecting small trinkets that remind him of his human days. Then one day he sees Teresa Palmer, the beautiful daughter of the leader of the human resistance (John Malkovich). It makes his heart grow even more sizes than the Grinch, so he shelters the poor girl from a zombie attack and takes her home to his airplane shelter. Gradually they get to know each other and communicate. With each gentle stab at love, he regains his human abilities. Those warm fuzzies also start to affect Corddry and other zombies by association. As they begin to remember love, they grow a consciousness and stop being so nasty (even their taste for human flesh subsides). Now it’s up to Hoult and Palmer to convince Malkovich that this cure is legit before a massive attack is waged on zombietown.
Even that description sounds cheesier than the movie actually is. Writer/director Jonathan Levine has previously proven himself to be a deft handler of genre tropes and gentle comedy through flicks like The Wackness, 50/50, and All The Boys Love Mandy Lane. He’s a filmmaker who knows and loves Hollywood escapism and plays into those fantasies rather than trying to mask them. It certainly doesn’t hurt that he’s also got a sense of humor just warped enough to make this idea work or that he actually knows how to lay down the beats of a genuine relationship arc rather than slipping into soap opera theatrics (this ain’t no Undead Twilight kiddies, despite what the marketing would have you believe). Then of course there’s the cast, Hoult manages to put more personality into a zombie than anyone since Sherman Howard’s Bub in Day Of The Dead, Rob Corddry gets the film’s biggest laughs with ease (especially when he tries to console his buddy over a broken heart in zombie talk), Palmer offers more than just a pretty face, and Malkovich…well, he’s John Malkovich, ‘nuff said. So what you’ve got here is a massively commercial vehicle made with delicate care, heart, and craft by a handful of filmmakers who actually know what they’re doing.
Of course, all that gushing should not suggest that the movie is perfect by any stretch of the imagination. As with any movie this openly and unabashedly romantic, there are corndog moments and lots of them (particularly whenever Hoult’s introspective voiceover comes into play). Similarly, the zombie violence has clearly been toned down dramatically in a ratings war, resulting in choppily edited set pieces and a distinct lack of gore in a genre that arguably popularized the gore-picture. And as with any low-budget genre movie these days, distractingly cheap CGI rears its ugly head from time-to-time. So, it’s a movie that will piss off many horror fans and also won’t exactly appeal across the board to rom-com fans who generally show up to see hearts being warmed rather than torn out and eaten. Warm Bodies is a weird and imperfect movie, but far from a bad one. Levine is clearly a filmmaker with talent who knows how to move an audience and if he can make both this and a cancer comedy work, I can’t wait to see what he plans to spit out in the future. If nothing else, Warm Bodies is the best zom-rom-com since Shaun Of The Dead. Hopefully that doesn’t become a full on subgenre though, because it’s time for zombies to go away for a little while. Still, Levine’s movie is still far better than it has any right to be and is a must see for anyone willing to give it a chance.