Although some would be reticent to admit it, the zombie genre has begun to rot of late. The immense amount of films coming out of the woodwork, from comedies to low-budget trash based on rudimentary plot schemes involving westerns or strippers or vampire battles, has diluted a series of films that originally had a political or social commentary running throughout its gory violence. Warm Bodies is a welcome deviation from the regular tradition because of its conceit; it might sound like an obvious take on Twilight, except instead of vampires it features zombies, but the film goes a little further than that. It’s got a heart all of its own, and it doesn’t simply use zombies as a gateway for romance.
R (Nicholas Hoult) and Julie (Teresa Palmer) have chemistry on-screen, and their strange and stilted romance works even though R simply grunts out short sentences and covers Julie’s face with brains every now and then. The lead-up is something of a stretch: R is shambling along with a group of corpses, he finds Julie with her own team of survivors, and after eating her boyfriend’s brain, R realizes that he’s actually somewhat infatuated with Julie. So he takes her home, without really thinking of the consequences, and proceeds to show her a rip-roaring time listening to old records, playing hot hands, and eating cans of fruit salad in an abandoned plane.
This is where most of the romance blossoms, and it’s entertaining to see this happen in the context of a zombie apocalypse. R is nice enough, and Hoult is allowed to show his acting chops without being able to talk clearly at all – he gets voiceovers based on his thoughts, and they’re often witty based on the events on the screen. Even the world of the zombies gets explored more than the average zombie flick; in those, from the perspective of the survivors, there’s no understanding of the zombie process, why they act the way they do or how they feel. Warm Bodies posits the question of what happens to the zombie when they come back to life; they shamble around, urged on by their hunger, but they also retain a semblance of their original being. When they lose hope, they become Bonies, skeletons without any conscience besides eating everything in sight.
The Bonies become more interesting than the zombies themselves after R and Julie fall in love and Julie heads back to her home camp. Her father (John Malkovich) is the leader of the base camp, and it’s been ingrained in his head that zombies are simply killers and must be stopped. But the idea that zombies can change based on hope or love is something that never factors into his mind, and so Julie and R set out to develop a new image for the corpses.
Aside from the romance which dominates a large part of the film’s runtime, there’s some emphasis on zombie violence as well that is one of the better parts of Warm Bodies. This occurs towards the beginning and end, but in the middle we’re left with some downtime where Julie and R explore the bones of their relationship. The second act is the weakest of the three; it’s plagued by uneventful circumstances, some cheesy love stories, and an emphasis on hipsterism.
Since Warm Bodies is marketed towards the tween/teen audience, there are many instances where it seems the film is pandering towards that crowd. The common tropes of vintage record players, Polaroids, washed-out cinematography in dream sequences, and some hugely popular soundtracks doesn’t feel natural; instead, it seems like Warm Bodies wants to ensure that it sits well within the popular crowd by including all of the things that the current generation seems to find endearing.
The finale, too, lacks a sense of pathos. Malkovich’s character as the overbearing father is used as a climax for the film, but other than a few scenes and some dialogue about him from Julie, that character is underdeveloped and can’t carry the tension. The same is true of the trite use of love to “change” zombies back into a slightly more human form – if only it were that easy, right? The conclusion rings hollow, if only because it’s hard to believe that compassion could cause the heart to beat again.
Warm Bodies is a feel-good take on Romeo & Juliet, with zombies to boot. While it’s certainly less ridiculous than the Twilight craze, it does still dip into the aspects of that series that make it less interesting for people who have left that juvenile stage of their lives. But it’s refreshing to see Warm Bodies exploring new areas of the zombie film through the eyes of a zombie; it’s a good start at exhuming the genre, even if this film will most likely divide the masses based on one’s appreciation (and patience) with the love story.