Starring Nicholas Hoult, Teresa Palmer, Analeigh Tipton, Rob Corddry, and John Malkovich
My rating: ★★★ stars
Witty zombie romance is enjoyable despite bland love interest.
In Screenwriting 101, students are taught that voice-over narration is a crutch, an easy, ineffective way for bad writers to convey the inner thoughts of the character. However, anyone who’s seen Sunset Blvd. (1950) knows that voice-over narration can be brilliant. Warm Bodies doesn’t reach the lofty heights of Billy Wilder’s masterpiece, but it does use extensive voice-over narration to elevate the story.
Throughout the film, we hear the thoughts of R (Nicholas Hoult), a zombie who can do little more than grunt and shuffle around the airport, which houses a number of zombies in the post-zombie apocalypse world. R doesn’t remember his name, but he thinks it began with R. He and his best friend, M (Rob Corddry), spend time grunting and moaning at each other in the airport bar. Occasionally, they manage to eke out a word like “hungry” or “city.”
The city is never identified. It’s a desolate wasteland, the remnants of Generic Urban Setting, USA, in the dystopian world. The movie was filmed in Montreal, however, and there’s something about the quality of light that suggests something vaguely northern and not American.
The surviving humans live in a walled off portion of the urban center to protect themselves from being eaten by the zombies. Groups of young humans are sent beyond the walls to scavenge necessary supplies. That’s when R meets Julie (Teresa Palmer) and starts to feel…something…again, which, nevertheless, doesn’t stop R from eating the brain of Julie’s boyfriend (Dave Franco). As R’s narration tells us, “the brain is the best part.”
The names of the unlikely lovers deliberately invoke Romeo and Juliet, and they even have a balcony scene late in the movie. I’m generally against cheap references toRomeo and Juliet to evoke young romance, but this movie doesn’t push the connection too heavily.
When R encounters Julie, his heart starts beating again, and he feels the need to protect her. He takes her to the cabin of a passenger jet that he has made into a home. The more time they spend together, the more articulate, capable, and human R becomes.
R’s growing humanity is contagious, spreading to M and the other airport zombies, who now must fight the “boneys,” skeletal former humans who have passed beyond zombiedom. Boneys will eat anything with a beating heart, and now many of the zombies have one. The boneys make a useful common enemy to unite the zombies and humans, led by Julie’s father, Grigio (John Malkovich).
Grigio, a military leader who has seized power after the apocalypse, is more than the usual stereotypical hard-ass general. We’re treated to glimpses of a rounder character, but the role doesn’t call for an actor of Malkovich’s caliber. It could have been just as successfully played by a Stephen Lang or a Michael Rooker.
The movie seems short. While I’m glad it doesn’t overstay its welcome like too many contemporary movies, I would have liked to have seen more time spent developing the secondary characters like Grigio and M. Corddry (W., Hot Tub Time Machine) is pitch perfect here, but, like Malkovich, he doesn’t have much to do.
This film benefits greatly from the charisma and star presence of Nicholas Hoult (About a Boy, X-Men: First Class), who does a lot with a character who, initially, can barely speak. I only wish that R’s love interest were as interesting and dynamic as he is. The film’s major flaw is the underdevelopment of the Julie character. We don’t know what she wants, how she feels, or why she’s able to overlook the fact that R ate her boyfriend. We don’t really get a sense of what Julie is like as a person. Teresa Palmer (December Boys, I Am Number Four) doesn’t convey much of anything. We have no idea what it is about her that can start the heart of a zombie. Her best friend, Nora (Analeigh Tipton in a scene-stealing role), is far more compelling. We’re not even told how old Julie is supposed to be. Is she a teenager or a twenty something? Her age would certainly affect our expectations of her behavior, but we have no idea. At least we have an excuse for not knowing R’s age—he doesn’t remember. Beyond Palmer’s bland performance, I’m not sure where the blame for the poor development of Julie should go. In Isaac Marion’s source novel, Julie is darker, grittier, and more jaded. Her lack of development may have come from an attempt to soften her for the movie.
On the whole, the screenplay, written by the director, Jonathan Levine, is well done. The structure is tight—although it is adapted from a novel, it doesn’t meander in a novelistic way. The character of R is interesting and has a compelling arc. The humor is witty and effectively uses irony to undercut the sentimentality of the story, creating a balanced tone.
Personally, I don’t find zombies nearly as interesting as vampires and other monsters. I generally eschew the trend of zombie-apocalypse stories. I haven’t seen a single episode of The Walking Dead. I avoided Zombieland. It took me over two years to work my way through Daniel Waters’s young adult novel, Generation Dead. However, this film does a successful job of humanizing the zombie characters and of making them interesting, which some might argue goes against the whole point of what a zombie is.
The songs of the seventies and eighties that saturate the soundtrack are pretty good, if a little overwhelming. Bruce Springsteen’s “Hungry Heart” is used to great effect.
The film has wit, intelligence, and heart and could have been a great romantic film but for the weakness of the female lead character. As it is, it’s an enjoyable way to spend 90 minutes.