The tale of a biologically mismatched young couple – she has vital signs, he doesn’t – Warm Bodies could be titled Romeo and Juliet and Zombies. Written and directed by Jonathan Levine (The Wackness, 50/50), and adapted from a young-adult novel by Isaac Marion, the movie is a good-natured romantic zombie comedy that plays like a tamer version of The Twilight Saga.
Set in an artfully dilapidated city and using a chilly, bruise-coloured palette, the film, which was shot in Montreal, begins with the voice-over of our hero (English actor Nicholas Hoult) wondering to himself about why he finds it so hard to connect with people. Then he remembers: “Oh right, I’m dead.”
The film’s Juliet (named Julie, and played by Australian actress Teresa Palmer) is a perky blond militia fighter and daughter of a widowed, always-angry, anti-zombie military leader (John Malkovich). They live in a heavily fortified compound with other survivors, eight years after a zombie epidemic wiped out most of the humans, including Julie’s mother.
The Romeo in our story is simply called “R” because that’s all he can remember. Also, it pretty much meets the demands of most zombie social interactions. R’s best friend is named “M” (as in Romeo and Juliet’s Mercutio), played by The Daily Show’s Rob Corddry, The two friends grunt syllables at each other, like co-workers who’ve been at the same office for too long.
Otherwise, they spend their time shambling about the ruined urban world looking for human nourishment (“At least I feel conflicted,” R rationalizes).
Zombies are not the bottom feeders in this world – that would be the “bonies,” ravenous skeletons (rendered in crummy-looking CGI) who feast on zombies and humans indiscriminately.
R’s and Julie’s worlds collide when a zombie herd comes upon a company of humans out on a supply run. In the ensuing battle, Julie’s gun-happy boyfriend Perry (Dave Franco) is killed and R, true to his zombie nature, feasts on Perry’s brain, absorbing his memories. A moment later he sees Juliet, and is immediately attracted to her – and not just in a buffet-lunch kind of way.
After saving Juliet from his fellow zombies, R takes her to his home, the fuselage of a plane at a no-longer functioning airport. Hiding out in their airplane to nowhere, they sample R’s extensive vinyl collection, including Bob Dylan’s Shelter from the Storm, and, of course, Bruce Springsteen’s Hungry Heart. Julie wastes little time grieving for her dead beau, and sees R’s potential – in spite of his lack of pulse. No doubt he’s appealing, with a mournful, adoring gaze and an inability to argue, though he seems more like a pet than a boyfriend. Hoult plays his zombie character like a young Frankenstein’s monster, eager to please but with a tendency to growl and lurch.
After its whimsical start, Warm Bodies loses narrative momentum, though there are flickerings of undead humour throughout. When R follows Julie back to the human compound, he gets a make-over from her and her friend, Nora (Analeigh Tipton), to allow him to pass as a healthy human. (True to Shakespeare again, Julie’s sidekick is an aspiring nurse.) Soon, R’s cheeks require no remedial blusher and the seamy veins on his neck have faded nicely: Love has re-animated him, and the effect has gone viral, making the other zombies awake from their stupors. All that’s left is to convince Julie’s father that zombies aren’t just salvageable, but may even serve as an ally against the relentless, even more dead “bonies.”
Warm Bodies is for audiences who prefer stories about mending hearts to munching brains, and ideally, for girls who aren’t quite sure yet if they want a slightly scary boyfriend, or a living doll they can dress up.