Who knew the shambling undead would be such perfect fodder for an adorable romantic comedy?
Though it will disappoint fans of zombie horror, “Warm Bodies” is an unexpected treat for anyone looking for a funny, swooningly romantic love story. It’s “Twilight” for people who feel that little things like wit and good characterization are important.
It also helps if they don’t mind a healthy dose of strangeness. “Warm Bodies” follows a zombie named R, played by Nicholas Hoult, who clings to bits of humanity even though he can’t remember anything about his. After eating the brains of a human resistance fighter, R falls in love with the dead guy’s girlfriend and saves her from the other zombies. After that, things get complicated.
The movie’s zombie mythology is both interesting and painfully vague. They’re not technically undead, which makes the love story aspect less gross, but what they are is handwaved away by saying no one in the cast knows either. There’s a second, creepier-looking stage of zombie, which the normal zombies change into when they give up their last dregs of humanity.
The zombies shamble and eat brains, but there are new twists like the zombies getting memories from the brains they eat. For R, experiencing those memories are the closest he can get to feeling anymore, and while it’s sweet there’s not a great deal of logic to it. Other zombie-related plot twists that come later are explained even less well. If “Warm Bodies” was supposed to be a zombie movie, I’d only give it two stars.
What it really is, however, is a love story. R is so engaging that it’s hard to care about scientific reasoning. He narrates most of the movie’s first ten minutes, sharing self-conscious observations on his unlife while we watch the dead wander around. Usually that much voiceover would kill a show faster than eating its brains, but here the contrast between how R looks and thinks is hilarious.
It’s also surprisingly sweet, and hearing his questions and doubts is a big first step in making the audience care about R. He’s incredibly conflicted about eating people, and it’s a lot harder to label him a monster than it is the corpses in “The Walking Dead.” And when he looks at Julie, the girl he saved, Hoult puts a world of hope and longing in his eyes.
Julie, played with admirable spunk by Teresa Palmer, is as lost in her own way as R. She misses the warmer things in life, details that have disappeared from the new militaristic society, and sees that warmth in R’s glimpses of humanity. She connects with him in a way no one has in a really long time, and it helps both of them feel a little more human. The resulting romance is more than a little fumbling, but surprisingly tender. I generally think of myself as a cynical human being, but watching them together made me get all misty-eyed.
As Nora, Julie’s friend, Analeigh Tipton injects a surprising amount of nobility into the stock best friend character. As M, R’s best friend, Rob Corddry is thoughtful and funny in his few scenes. John Malkovich, as chilly as ever, isn’t given much to do.
After all, chills aren’t what this movie is looking for. Yes, brains are eaten. But “Warm Bodies” is really a sweet, funny love story, with a romantic heart beating beneath its undead exterior.