An inspired mashup of zombie heart and romantic-comedy brains, “Warm Bodies” offers a welcome twist on the living-dead canon, even if the decidedly femme-skewed results ignore pretty much every rule of the genre. Hoping to do for flesh-eaters what “The Twilight Saga” did for vampires, albeit on a smaller scale, writer-director Jonathan Levine spins Isaac Marion’s novel into a broadly appealing date movie about a zombified Romeo and his lively Juliet. As played by Nicholas Hoult and Teresa Palmer, the couple carries a love story with more laughs than scares, and should breathe fresh life into the Valentine’s Day frame.
Although most of the teenage target audience for this hot-blooded romance will be too young to remember, for decades, zombies were the bottom-feeders of the horror world. Now, thanks to AMC’s “The Walking Dead” and other popular reinterpretations, they seem to be all the rage, giving “Warm Bodies” a chance to evolve things further.
Marion’s concept revises classic zombie lore, in which an irreversible infection transforms carefree humans into cannibalistic corpses. Here, the change might not be permanent, although a contingent of well-armed survivors led by Gen. Grigio (John Malkovich in taskmaster mode) don’t know that, walling themselves off in a dilapidated city for protection from the slow-moving undead and their more aggressive counterparts, called Bonies.
But as Miracle Max might say, there’s a big difference between mostly dead and all dead, and Hoult’s character — who calls himself “R,” since that’s all he can remember of his name — still has at least half a brain, as evidenced by his zingy, self-aware narration. On his new appetite for anything with a heartbeat, he shrugs, “At least I’m conflicted.”
Shuffling about an abandoned airport with pale skin, dark eye makeup and a grubby red hoodie, R could pass for a disaffected college dropout. Indeed, Marion’s novel suggests that apathy, rather than a virus, was responsible for the zombie outbreak, and the film charmingly embraces the idea that romance could be enough to shake people back to life.
One day, R, grunt-buddy M (Rob Corddry) and a group of hungry zombies venture out in search of food and stumble across a group of humans led by Julie (Palmer) and her half-psycho b.f., Perry (Dave Franco). When the two parties meet, a bloodbath ensues. In the process of killing Perry, R spies Julie blasting away his cohorts, and something in him stirs.
Smitten, R leads Julie back to his sanctum — an abandoned airplane where he collects trinkets from his various raids, including a record collection that fuels the amusing song-filled soundtrack, which asks auds to reinterpret old lyrics, giving new meaning to John Waite’s “Missing You” and Bruce Springsteen’s “Hungry Heart.” Channeling the awkwardness of young love, R struggles to express himself to his captive, while Julie comes to realize that maybe the humans have the wrong idea about the zombies, who are slowly coming back to life — in a good way.
Conveniently for R, Julie seems unfazed by Perry’s quite-permanent death, and as they hang out, his vocabulary relaxes to the point that they can communicate. It helps that by the film’s rules, ingesting brains allows zombies to absorb their victims’ memories, which affords R glimpses into happier, pre-apocalyptic times whenever he noshes on pieces of Perry.
Since the story sees no reason the two lovers should not be joined, the only challenge that remains is convincing humans and zombies to join forces against those nasty Bonies — badly rendered mo-cap skeletons that are not up to the pic’s otherwise impressive production values. Though the visual effects sometimes disappoint, the crew achieves scope via aerial photography and ideal Montreal locations.
The pic keeps the horror quotient in check while focusing on the femme-friendly comedy and romance angles, offsetting the plentiful moments of suspense with cutesy scenes like the one in which Julie’s best friend (Analeigh Tipton) gives R a human makeover. Even at the outset, R doesn’t appear too frightening, and the more time he spends around humans, the less dead he looks.
For purists, nearly every aspect of “Warm Bodies” defies the guidelines established by zombie godfather George A. Romero. If the walking dead always found it this easy to go vegan, the genre would fade away in a heartbeat, and yet “Warm Bodies” still embraces its rich allegorical potential to lighter effect, treating the last act, for instance, as a “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner”-like farce.