March 28, 2013 • 12:15:57 p.m.

Movie review: ‘Warm Bodies’ (VIDEO)

By JEFFREY WESTHOFF – planitnews@shawmedia.com

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Nicholas Hoult stars in "Warm Bodies" (photo provided)

"Warm Bodies"

RATED PG-13 for zombie violence and some language

RUNNING TIME 1 hour, 37 minutes

WHO'S IN IT Nicholas Hoult, Teresa Palmer, John Malkovich, Rob Corddry

WHAT IT'S ABOUT A zombie boy (Hoult) who retains a vestige of his soul meets a human girl (Palmer) and falls in love. Eventually, she returns his affections, but her father (Malkovich) is the zombie-hating leader of the local militia.

The zombie craze has become like the creature itself: It just keeps lumbering ahead, unstoppable and unkillable.

Usually once the elements of a genre have become so codified they are easy to parody, the trend withers. Yet nearly nine years after the potential bullet to the brain that was “Shaun of the Dead,” zombies still mindlessly shamble across screens, hungry for human flesh and greater box-office success. The trend has survived long enough to inspire another zombie comedy, “Warm Bodies.”

Actually, most of the zombie movies of the last few years have been comedies, such as “Zombieland” with its unforgettable Bill Murray cameo. The terrifying, gory stuff started by George A. Romero has been carried along by television’s “The Walking Dead,” comic books, videogames and young adult novels.

“Warm Bodies,” which writer-director Jonathan Levine adapted from Isaac Marion’s novel, distinguishes itself from other zombie projects by being a romantic comedy and also the first movie told from a zombie’s perspective. As ludicrous as that may sound – zombies don’t think, right? – it was also inevitable. We’ve had sympathetic vampires for decades; at some point some writer was going to invent a sympathetic zombie.

R, played by the young British actor Nicholas Hoult, is that zombie. In his earliest voice-over narration, he laments, “Why can’t I connect with other people? Oh yeah, it’s because I’m dead.”

R belongs to a pack of zombies that wander an abandoned airport. For reasons unknown to him, he has retained vestiges of his human soul. He camps out in a 747, and like Wall-E, he fills his residence with mementos of a lost civilization. R has an impressive collection of ’80s vinyl, and he plays such thematically relevant songs as John Wait’s “Missing You” and Bruce Springsteen’s “Hungry Heart.”

On a foray for human flesh, R encounters Julie (Teresa Palmer). Actually, he encounters her boyfriend first, and it doesn’t go well for the boyfriend. When R eats the boyfriend’s brains (a prime instance where the film’s comedy and horror work fiercely against each other), he gains the boyfriend’s memories and instantly absorbs his love for Julie.

R saves Julie from the other zombies and takes her back to his 747. She slowly, very slowly, realizes this inarticulate creature of the night is keeping her alive because he likes her. She begins to see a possibility that zombies can be cured, but she knows she will never convince her father (John Malkovich), the leader of the local militia who hates the undead the way John Wayne hated Indians in “The Searchers.”

Although “Warm Bodies” is not a flat-out reworking of “Romeo and Juliet,” it deliberately borrows from Shakespeare’s tale. Note that he is named R and she is named Julie. There is a balcony scene, as well as a pool scene that reflects Baz Luhrmann’s version of the balcony scene. Also, Julie’s best friend, Nora (the delightful Analeigh Tipton), serves a similar role to Juliet’s nurse.

In a low-key way, “Warm Bodies” works as a spoof of romantic comedies and as a spoof of zombie movies, even as a thriller. But these separate strains seldom work well together. During the “getting to know you” stretch, R and Julie borrow a convertible from the airport’s garage and she teaches him how to drive. This is standard fodder for a romantic comedy, made funnier because he is a monster with a lead foot, but she is also his captive who hasn’t yet fallen for R. Julie could easily use the convertible to escape the airport, so why doesn’t she.

Yet for all the ill-fitting elements and plot holes, “Warm Bodies” pulls everything together with a cheery spirit and a sense of – dare I say it? – heart. Levine owes much of this to Hoult’s sensitive and humorous performance. Hoult, probably still best known as the boy in “About a Boy,” draws much of his interpretation of the yearning zombie from Boris Karloff’s heartbreaking portrayal of Frankenstein’s monster, particularly in “Bride of Frankenstein” as the monster learns to speak.

Comic actor Rob Corddry plays M, a zombie who is the closest thing R has to a friend. R suspects M also harbors latent human emotions, but he isn’t certain. You know how men never open up about their feelings.

Perhaps the prime reason zombies have lasted so long is that they are a blank canvas that can take on any metaphor. In “Warm Bodies,” zombiehood is a metaphor for awkwardness. “Why do I have to be so weird?” R complains as he again fails to demonstrate his affection. The lead characters are probably in their 20s, but they behave like teenagers, and R’s romantic woes are common among teenage boys in love.

This allows “Warm Bodies” to be weirdly charming. As I left the screening, a mother in front of me asked her teenage daughter what she thought about the film. “It was cute,” the daughter said. “Yeah, it was cute,” the mother concurred.

I agreed with them, but their opinion made me wonder whether “Warm Bodies” may be the beginning of the end for the zombie craze. Zombies survived the direct satirical assault of “Shaun of the Dead,” but can they survive being cute? 

• Jeffrey Westhoff writes movie reviews for the Northwest Herald and PlanitNorthwest.com. Email him at planitnews@shawmedia.com.


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