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Warm Bodies (2013)

DIRECTOR: Jonathan Levine

CAST: Nicholas Hoult, Teresa Palmer, Rob Corddry, Dave Franco, Analeigh Tipton, Cory Hardrict, John Malkovich

REVIEW:

An adaptation of Isaac Marion’s novel, Warm Bodies combines two genres you might have reasonably expected to never see combined—romantic comedy and zombies.  Warm Bodies aspires to be part romantic comedy, part satire, and part more straightforward zombie thriller. If that sounds like a clashing jumble, that’s because it is, and the movie’s schizophrenic, trying-to-be-a-little-bit-of-everything tone holds it back from fully succeeding at being anything, but there are also enough witty moments, likable leads, and a unique premise to make Warm Bodies at least worth a curious look.

Warm BodiesWe open with a zombie (Nicholas Hoult) known only as R—he remembers his name started with an R, but that’s the best he can do—shuffling around a post-apocalyptic city with his fellow walking dead while his voiceover provides a tongue-in-cheek running commentary (“damn we move slow…this could take a while”). The “dead zone” is quarantined from the surrounding city, run by a hardline Colonel (John Malkovich), who warns everyone that zombies are not human, cannot think, and do not have feelings. One day, the Colonel’s daughter Julie (Teresa Palmer) enters the dead zone with a band of humans to collect medical supplies. A zombie attack results in R chowing down on the brains of her boyfriend Perry (Dave Franco), which gives him flashes of memories of Perry’s life and his relationship with Julie. Somehow, this jumpstarts a chain reaction inside R. Instead of unintelligible grunts, he starts speaking isolated words and eventual sentences. His heart starts beating. He takes Julie captive and protects her from the other zombies. He begins to look more human. Eventually, even R’s “best friend” (Rob Corddry), then other zombies, are affected. Thus begins one of the more unusual takes on Romeo & Juliet—it’s no coincidence that the girl’s name is Julie and the boy’s name starts with R—with the Montague and Capulet stand-ins being the zombies who are past the point of no return, and Julie’s hardcore, trigger-happy father, with R and Julie caught in the middle.

Some have bemoaned Warm Bodies as doing to zombies what Twilight did to vampires: neutering traditional horror monsters and turning them into love interests in chick flick romances. I think that’s a bit of an unfair comparison, because Warm Bodies‘ tone and aim is much more intentionally tongue-in-cheek and satirical than Twilight‘s. From R’s opening voiceover onward, it’s clear in unsubtle fashion that much of Warm Bodies is a satirical social commentary about loss of interpersonal relationships (zombies shuffling mutely past each other and the quarantining wall as allegories for how people don’t connect or communicate personally anymore). Warm Bodies aspires to be smarter and sharper than just a horror-comedy, but it doesn’t do much more than scratch the surface, focusing mostly on its schizophrenic hybrid of romantic comedy/drama and straightforward horror. There are some funny scenes, and a couple mildly tension-inducing sequences involving the “Bonies”—the zombies who have deteriorated into predatory walking skeletons—but like its weighty ideas relegated to minor subplots, its indecision about what exactly it’s trying to be means it can’t fully take flight in any one direction. It’s too serious to be work fully on its comedy merits, and too tongue-in-cheek to work as a straight horror movie.

The leads are capable and likable, and do their part to keep the proceedings afloat.  Nicholas Hoult does a nice physical job transitioning from a stereotypical shuffling, blank-faced zombie to a puppy-eyed socially awkward human. He also rattles off his sarcastic voiceover with the right matter-of-fact deadpan. Teresa Palmer is attractive and spunky, and holds up her end of the romantic coupling.  Both the English Hoult and Australian Palmer do flawless American accents.  Dave Franco—who bears an immediately noticeable physical resemblance to his more famous brother James—is dead early, but still gets a fair amount of screentime via flashbacks. Analeigh Tipton, as Julie’s friend, has a couple amusing lines. The “name” in the cast, John Malkovich, is in “picking up a paycheck” mode, dropping by once in a while and saying a few lines (also, it’s Malkovich, meaning he’s more creepy than most of the zombies).

Warm Bodies is heavily-flawed, but it contains its share of enjoyment. There are witty bits, especially the opening voiceover, and a later scene in which Julie and her friend put makeup on R to help him blend in as a human (starting out with the background music set amusingly to “Pretty Woman”), and some of the moments where R and the other zombies realize how they’re changing are oddly poignant. The “Bonies” are creepy, albeit underused and trotted out as a token threat when the movie wants to inject a dash of action/horror. The movie is never unwatchable, or even unenjoyable, but its tonal schizophrenia and indecision about its own genre leaves it underwhelming and mediocre.

* * 1/2

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