“Cute” is not a word that can be applied to a lot of zombie movies, but it’s the most apt description available for Warm Bodies, a PG-13 undead romance from indie writer-director Jonathan Levine. Levine has spent the last few years making almost-but-not-quite cult films like All the Boys Love Mandy Lane, The Wackness and 50/50. Warm Bodies follows in that tradition, a likable but imperfect black comedy that will find moderate box office success while infecting a handful of loyal fans.
Warm Bodies definitely won’t sit well with hardcore zombie connoisseurs. (Yes, there is such a thing.) The cheerfully emo film doesn’t present any particularly inventive post-apocalyptic world. (Apparently people spent a lot of time painting random graffiti on city walls before they turned into zombies.) The zombie “rules” have little consistency here. (If there’s one thing the zombie connoisseurs hate, it’s mixing classic, Romero-style shamblers with 28 Days Later… inspired runners.) The source of the zombie outbreak afflicting America is never spelled out. The genre-requisite blood and gore is here, but has been severely Disneyfied. And the happy ending is, well, not in keeping with any death metal album cover I’ve ever seen.
Nonetheless, the film—based on Isaac Marion’s 2010 novel of the same name—is well-aimed at its teenage target audience. For starters, there’s our protagonist, a hoodie-wearing zombie kid named “R.” (He can’t remember the rest of his name.) R (Nicholas Hoult from About a Boy and X-Men: First Class) narrates the film in voice-over, bemoaning his undead state and wishing for a more peaceful, less flesh-craving way of life.
One day, while shambling through the ruins of the city with a pack of fellow zombies, R stumbles across a scavenging party led by uninfected human Julie (Teresa Palmer, I Am Number Four). R chows down (regretfully) on Julie’s boyfriend (the frightfully Franco-esque Dave Franco from 21 Jump Street). One side-effect of snacking on someone’s brains, it seems, is that you’re flooded with their memories. Suddenly blindsided by a deep affection for Julie, R rescues the girl and takes her back to his airport crash pad.
R, you see, is a different kind of zombie. He’s got feelings. He collects vinyl records. And he can muster up the occasional monosyllabic response. Over the course of a couple of days, R and Julie bond. At some point, though, she’s got to return to her home, a walled enclave ruled by her militant, gun-toting father (John Malkovich—underacting, surprisingly). Needless to say, that’s no place for an undead guy like R—even if he is the world’s most sensitive zombie. What are these star-crossed lovers to do?
Though Warm Bodies is amusingly written, engagingly cast and cute as a Goth Hello Kitty T-shirt, it never really works its way up to full-blown clever. (If you want that, check out 2006’s boy-and-his-pet-zombie flick Fido with Billy Connolly.) Necrophilac love story aside, this is all familiar territory. (“Aim for the head!” one character helpfully advises his friends who—unlike the audience members—have obviously never seen a zombie movie.) The filmmakers lean heavily on their extensive soundtrack to telegraph emotions (John Waite’s “Missing You,” Bruce Springsteen’s “Hungry Heart,” Bob Dylan’s “Shelter from the Storm”). And in case you missed the blatant Romeo and Juliet rewrite on the plot, Warm Bodies throws in a balcony scene to remind remedial English students of Shakespeare’s oft-copied template.
If the story falls into the “comfortably predictable” category, there are at least a few details that are well handled. Every romantic comedy is required to hinge on some sort of secret that Person A is keeping from Person B. In this particular case, “By the way, I ate your boyfriend and absorbed all his memories” is a pretty reasonable thing to keep to oneself. Though the outcome is never in doubt, the character conflicts and plot complications are engagingly explored.
Obviously, this is no When Harry Met Sally… It’s no Dawn of the Dead either. But Hoult and Palmer demonstrate as much chemistry as a dead guy and a girl with a shotgun can muster. You could do worse than spend an hour and a half watching them fall for each other while running from flesh-eating skeleton monsters. (Actually not the worst first date I’ve ever heard of.)