The tween-minded zombie romance Warm Bodies pulls a comic-romantic twist on a genre better known for its entrails. It is narrated by the undead fellow known as R, played by Nicholas Hoult, soon to be slaying giants in Jack the Giant Slayer.
The voice-over narration confirms our hero’s sensitive side. “I just want to connect,” he tells us, accompanying footage of R stumbling around an abandoned airport on an ordinary undead day, among his fellow zombies in a post-apocalyptic landscape. R covets his long-playing records (actual vinyl!), and like the title character in Wall-E, he’s a collector and a nostalgist by nature. All he needs is love.
The film, written and directed by Jonathan Levine, comes from Isaac Marion’s novel, and its rules of zombie life and lifelessness are pretty clear. By eating human brains, zombies can experience that victim’s memories. More pertinent to the narrative, which riffs on Romeo and Juliet to the point of including a balcony scene, in Warm Bodies the zombie state is not permanent. It’s reversible. If you’re in love with a young woman (Teresa Palmer) who is not yet dead, this is promising news.
Palmer’s character, Julie, is the overprotected daughter of General Grigio, leader of the movement to keep the zombies at bay on the other side of the quarantine wall. (What’s up with that character name? Is he a crew chief at Trader Joe’s?) Julie and R have their own little “meet-cute” according to rom-com requirements: While hunting for zombies with her boyfriend and some other pretty people, Julie is saved from being eaten by R. The pale young man’s heartstrings go zing! when he spies her lovely loveliness. Her dawning interest in decaying nerds with poetry in their souls sparks a revolution.
We’re a long way from the manic, repulsive, jolly slapstick of Zombieland. This is more like a sensitively bent version of a Nicholas Sparks novel, where lovers must overcome significant social obstacles before moving on to the bed. At one point we hear R remind himself: “Don’t be creepy … don’t be creepy,” as he tries to pass for human among actual humans. Hoult has a nice, sympathetic quality at such moments, though the whole of Warm Bodies, in both its comic and dramatic strains, lacks a certain … what? Ooomph? Intensity? Invention?
Levine has a strong instinct as a packager of moments, ladling on the alt-rock just so before ladling on another ladle’s worth. So far he’s proven himself wildly uneven, careening from the smugness of The Wackness to the heartening success of 50/50. Warm Bodies lands somewhere between the two. Rob Corddry, as one of R’s undead pals, quietly steals the show in his first wholly effective screen turn. Usually, Corddry gives audiences too much, playing the boor. Here, he may be zombiefied, but he warms to the underplaying opportunity at hand.
Warm Bodies (PG-13) ★★★☆☆