Friday, February 8, 2013

WARM BODIES Is a Zombie Movie With Brains (!) and Heart


- Don't be fooled by the marketing push - WARM BODIES is most definitely not just "Twilight with zombies." In fact, this is a dark, funny, satirical film that is both reverent of classic zombie films, but also intent on introducing a lot of new, original ideas into the zombie cannon. That said, this is in fact a film about zombie romance. And yes, that's an idea that sounds cheesy or even off-putting on paper - I mean, zombies are heartless undead monsters whose only desire is to feed on human flesh ... right? Well, to Warm Bodies' credit, the romance is handled in a clever manner that has a loose but fairly simple internal logic to it. And against all odds, there's actually some real heart to the film. A zombie film with both brains and heart? Tasty.

Based on a novel, Warm Bodies puts us inside the head of a young zombie ... as it turns out, zombies still have very human-esque inner-thoughts - there's just a vast disconnect between what they are thinking, and what they're actually able to articulate through speech and movement. Their memories of their past lives are fragmented and mostly lost. Our protagonist (Nicholas Hoult) doesn't remember his name, except that it started with "R." But in between his primal drive to feast on humans, he's got a surprisingly complex inner monologue going on. It gets even more complex when, while attacking some humans, R eats the brain of a young guy named Perry (Dave Franco). As it turns out, brains are like a drug for zombies, because eating a brain floods a zombie with memories and feelings from the brain's owner. And so, as he devours Perry's brain in front of his terrified friends, R is flooded with memories and sudden feelings for Perry's girlfriend, Julie (Teresa Palmer). So instead of attacking her, R kidnaps her - in true monster movie fashion - and takes her back to his zombie lair, housed in an airport that's become overrun with the walking dead. There, R tries to maintain some semblance of a human life - he collects old rock records and DVD's (he's amusingly got a copy of the classic "Zombie" in his collection). And as R spends more time with Julie, something strange happens ... he begins to evolve, slowly, and become increasingly less zombie and more human.

Unfortunately for R, he's got some major problems to contend with, even as his humanity slowly begins to return. For one thing, it so happens that Julie's dad (John Malkovich) is the militant leader of what's-left-of- humanity's anti-zombie forces - and he's determined to rescue his daughter and kill all zombies in his way. Secondly, there's a breed of uber-evil skeleton zombies called Bonies - longtime zombies who've devolved into skeletal creatures who kill both humans and regular zombies with equal vigor. The Bonies' numbers have been growing, and they're now becoming a massive threat to everyone, zombies included.

Director Jonathan Levine (50/50) skillfully weaves these threads together. While the heart of the story revolves around the relationship between R and Julie, there's some pretty epic stuff going on in the background, and the movie's got some exciting, visceral action scenes and some uber-cool moments of creature horror. And yet, Levine films a lot of the film in a very straightforward, non-showy style that grounds it in a quirky, left-of-center reality. The action really ramps up in the third act, but before that, there's a major emphasis on comedy and satire. A few movies (think Shaun of the Dead) have done the humans-are-already-basically-zombies angle, but Warm Bodies does it very well and in its own unique manner. R is sort of a great proxy for every smitten guy who can't quite articulate his thoughts and feelings to the girl he's digging. Similarly great is the relationship between R and Rob Cordry's M. Their zombie-bro friendship is hilarious, because their supportive zombie grunts and uncommunicative hang-out sessions are, let's face it, not all that different from the way most dudes act around each other. Cordry is easily one of the film's highlights though - he has some gut-bustingly funny, laugh-out loud lines - but most of the time, he's just slyly funny.

Meanwhile, I give a ton of credit to Hoult for his performance here. The way he's able to create a fully fleshed-out (no pun intended) performance while playing a zombie - it's pretty crazy. Hoult is given the leeway to inject some humanity into the character - especially as R begins his transformation - but the way he mixes zombie mannerisms with real human emotion is well done. Meanwhile, Teresa Palmer shows some real promise as Julie. A cut above other young actresses I've seen, she does a nice job working with Hoult, and the two have a nice chemistry. Also very good is Analeigh Tipton as Julie's best friend Nora - a spunky doctor keen on studying R and his evolving physiology.

If there's one casting complaint, it's probably just that John Malkovich feels underused, and his character underserved. It feels like if you get an actor like Malkovich, it's worth it to give him some scenes to really chew on, and make sure he's got at least a couple of standout moments. Mostly though, he's a non-factor until close to the end of the movie. But I will say, he does make the character into more than he might have been otherwise, and he shines during some key moments of the film.

To that end, the movie's biggest fault is probably that a lot of the details, and the overall mythology, of the film feel glossed over, and in some instances rushed. From little inconsistencies that nag at you (like the zombies being slow moving in some instances, but fast in others), to a lack of overall context for this world and the status and numbers of the human survivors. Some of that detail and world-building does seem to take a major backseat to the central relationship of R and Julie, and all of the various fun/awkward/cutesy moments between them. But hey, the fact that Warm Bodies *does* have so much humor, action, and satire in addition to the romance was, to me, a really cool and welcome surprise.

So, sure, WARM BODIES has a bit of teen angst and young romance, but it works surprisingly well, and in a way where, from the get-go, it's clear that this is in another universe from Twilight and the like. If anything, the film's heart is genuine - there's sweetness and schmaltz, but - who knew? - the film mines some real feel-good vibes from a zombie apocalypse setting. These days, shows like The Walking Dead mire their characters in a never-ending, nihilistic hell that never gets better. Warm Bodies turns the zombie genre on its head by showing that, hey, maybe even in a zombie apocalypse, there's a light at the end of the tunnel.

My Grade: B+

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