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There’s a moment in Warm Bodies when the film’s protagonist and narrator, a zombie named R (Nicholas Hoult), watches a fellow member of the undead painstakingly peel off the remainder of his face. He retorts, “Don’t pick at it, you’re making it worse!”
That’s perhaps the best embodiment of the movie’s tone, which fits snugly in between Dawn of the Dead and Shaun of the Dead: Writer/director Jonathan Levine (The Wackness, 50/50) maintains his trademark ability to meld the horrific with the hilarious, bringing to life (er … afterlife?) the quirky dialogue, offbeat humor and lovable characters of Isaac Marion’s popular novel.
It’s understandable why zombie purists might hesitate to see Warm Bodies, and not simply because the Summit Entertainment release falls into rom-com-dram territory. There’s a twist to the film that goes against what we’ve learned about zombies, but Levine has said he was inspired to take on this project by films like Zombieland, Fido, Dead Alive and Shaun of the Dead because they push the subgenre in new directions. Keeping that in mind, Warm Bodies is a success. When’s the last time you watched a coming-of-death love story narrated by the undead?
We’re introduced to R, who can’t remember his human name, as he creakily lurks and stumbles about an abandoned airport overrun by zombie. In quippy voiceover, he imagines what all these lost souls did before a plague wiped out most of the world’s population, and walks the audience through the humdrum trials of daily life. He has a best friend, M (Rob Corddry), with whom he shares emphatic grunted conversations at the airport’s long-abandoned bar. R’s only solace is his hideaway within the shell of an airplane, where he collects human trinkets and DJs an impressive array of tunes on an old record player.
R is wrenched from his zombie stupor when he and a group of his undead pals go looking for sustenance — a zombie’s gotta eat brains, after all — and they stumble upon a group of humans in search of medication to bring back to their walled-up enclave. R eats the brains of beautiful Julie’s (Teresa Palmer) boyfriend Perry (Dave Franco) and somehow inherits his memories. To save her from his bloodthirsty cohorts, R whisks Julie away to the safety of his airplane, where an unlikely attraction develops. Their bond is tested when Julie attempts to return home to her zombie-hating father General Grigio (John Malkovich), and the pair is pursued by evil, soulless zombies called Bonies.
It’s no surprise Levine was going for a John Hughes effect with Warm Bodies; the cast of up-and-coming young actors is Breakfast Club-esque: Hoult, of X-Men: First Class fame, is fantastic in a role that requires charisma without the ability to speak or move like a human. Palmer is fiery and lovable; she and Hoult have fantastic chemistry. And if you haven’t seen Franco in 21 Jump Street, or Analeigh Tipton (who plays Julie’s best friend Nora) in Damsels in Distress, you need to get on that. Warm Bodies is a film full of future stars. Corddry is undoubtedly the biggest supporting standout, though, bringing a surprisingly emotional humor and poignancy to his character. This is the role where he proves his improvisational genius stretches beyond jokes; you’ll basically want your very own Zombie Corddry as a BFF by the time the movie’s over.
Even if you’re a zombie purist, give Warm Bodies a chance. Levine showcases a deft hand when it comes to infusing refreshingly relatable coming-of-age and romance elements with all the jump scares, peril and, yes, blood-splattering goodness you’d expect from a classic Romero film. It’s ironic that Hoult co-starred in About a Boy, as tonally, Warm Bodies is a little like watching the undead version of a Nick Hornby adaptation. R may as well be an homage to Rob in High Fidelity.
Warm Bodies opens today nationwide.