Don’t start putting together your survival kits just yet—everything you know about zombies is about to change. In “Warm Bodies,” directed by Jonathan Levine and based off the book of the same title by Isaac Marion, zombies—which have already evolved dramatically since they first entered pop culture in the early 20th century—take a new and touching turn. While suggesting a whole host of new considerations in planning for zombie apocalypse survival, Levine’s heart-warming film drastically and hilariously reinterprets what it means to be a zombie and advances the genre in an unconventional direction.
Unlike most films of the subgenre, in which zombie characters aren’t much more than stock monsters and tragedies; in “Warm Bodies,” they are the most compelling and well-acted figures in the film. Essential to this is the film’s unapologetic departure from the traditional definition of zombies as brain-dead, which allows for the entertainingly angsty inner monologue of R (Nicholas Hoult). R’s best friend Marcus (Rob Corddry) is superb comic relief as well. They are part of a multitude of zombies who may or may not also have active minds themselves, perhaps frustrated like R by their inability to express themselves or even move easily.
These zombies hunt humans for food, but they are still not the greatest threat to the surviving community of humans. Worse than regular, slow moving zombies are so-called “bonies,”—a sort of skeletal super-zombie, larger and more dangerously agile than the standard type. These extra-zombified zombies provide a further twist to the traditional zombie narrative by pushing the regular zombies closer to humans and eventually giving zombies and humans a common enemy. The plot follows the “Romeo and Juliet”-based love story between R and the human girl Julie (Teresa Palmer), whose father (John Malkovich) is the leader of the remaining survivors. By another quirk of this strain of zombie-ness, R falls in love with Julie and takes her to the airport where he and the other zombies live. A long and somewhat predictable process ensues, in which R tries first to win her over and then to impress upon her society the idea that zombies are people too. Palmer plays her role as straight woman well, but it is Hoult and the hilariously well-integrated soundtrack that keep the film engaging and fresh—throughout “Warm Bodies,” Hoult showcases his ability to be goofy and expressive despite his limited range of movement, and the music both complements and injects additional humor into the story with choices such as Bruce Springsteen’s “Hungry Heart.”
It’s worth noting that “Warm Bodies” is not “Twilight” with zombies. While it is a romance between a human girl and a not-exactly-human guy, the irreverence with which “Warm Bodies” treats the entire subject matter sets it entirely apart. Different too is how the liberties taken with zombie psychology and physiology not only give the plot more flexibility, but suggest that zombies have a strong metaphorical significance within this film. In many horror movies, zombies either serve as little more than plot devices or have symbolic meaning that is difficult to detect. In “Warm Bodies,” the terror of R’s nearly locked-in experience and his inability to communicate, though masked with levity, could be seen as reminiscent of the increasing complexity of communication and expression in modern society. The tension he feels while trying desperately to speak like a normal human, is reminiscent of the general feelings of nervousness and social awkwardness that so many people feel at some point. More generally, though, his grunt-like conversations with Marcus, their completely incomprehensible attempts to get through to each other, as well as R’s use of music to communicate his good intentions when he first meets Julie, seem to echo the confusion and limitation imposed on communication today by the array of technologies which so often confound interpersonal contact.
Thematics aside, “Warm Bodies” is extraordinarily sweet and energetic. The new perspective on zombies it presents is at once outlandish and also quite intriguing. It is fitting that as we progress scientifically and culturally, our conception of zombies within film should evolve and we should strive to understand them better. Perhaps “Warm Bodies” ought to teach us to consider building loving relationships with zombies as a viable plan for zombie apocalypse survival, or perhaps it is a movie about acceptance and learning to communicate comfortably with others. Likely, it is just the latter.
—Staff writer Rebecca J. Mazur can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.