“What am I doing with myself? Why can't I connect with people?” These are the sort of questions that turn humans sleepless and despairing; the twist of Warm Bodies is that the same questions keep zombies up at night, too.
Well, one zombie, at least: Red-hoodied, decomposing R (Hoult) can’t remember his first name or string together a complete sentence, but he’s still chasing feelings and a reason to live beyond finding his next dish of brains to feast on. He finds that reason on a hunting trip with his best friend, M (Corddry), and other walking dead, when he spares the life of human Julie (Palmer), and then protects her from less scrupulous zombies. Ferreted away in the abandoned commercial airliner he’s made his home, R plays her LPs that convey the words he can’t articulate. Little by little, the undead boy and beating-heart girl warm to one another.
To call Warm Bodies a zombie romantic-comedy is both accurate and reductive. The horror is largely goreless, although the film doesn’t shy from R’s innate bloodlust, and there are zombies-plus here – skeletal things called Bonies – that regularly supply jolts of terror. The romance develops tentatively and tenderly, informed by the couple’s mutual longing for a simpler, more visceral experience. And the comedy feels rooted in character, not simply coasting on that which is built into the zom-rom-com-har! premise.
Working from the source novel by Isaac Marion (see “Happy Accidents,” Feb. 1, for more about Marion’s original idea and its transition to screen), writer/director Jonathan Levine (50/50, The Wackness) has created that rare thing in modern studio moviemaking – a consequential universe. Hits hurt. People die. Small gestures of kindness somersault into bigger things. R spends the first half of the film feeding on the pocketed brains of Julie’s dead friend, and that fact is more gruesome and compelling than any elaborately staged zombie-Boney-human throwdown.
With 50/50, his last stint in the director’s chair, Levine upended convention to make a feel-good cancer movie. He’s still defying expectations: In animating the inner workings of the undead, he’s made a movie that is both clever and heartfelt.