Movies about the dead returning to life have been around almost as long as cinema itself, but it is writer-director George A. Romero who popularized an entire subgenre of zombie films with 1968's "Night of the Living Dead" and its subsequent companion pieces, 1978's "Dawn of the Dead" and 1985's "Day of the Dead." Creepy and at times mordantly humorous, Romero sought to use the idea of the undead roaming the earth as a jumping-off point to bitingly explore modern society and the similarities between the living and the rotting resurrected. In many ways, they were us, and we were them. Following a bit of a lull, the last decade has seen something of a resurgence within popular culture, beginning with Zack Snyder's arguably superior 2004 remake of "Dawn of the Dead
" and Edgar Wright's British spoof "Shaun of the Dead
," continuing on with 2009's fabulously witty distant cousin "Zombieland
" and the acclaimed AMC television series "The Walking Dead," and leading toward the upcoming epic-sized, Brad Pitt-starring adaptation of "World War Z." Deserving to not get lost in the shuffle is the deliciously unique, constantly surprising "Warm Bodies," certain to be unlike any other zombie picture the viewer has ever seen as it dares to explore the inner thoughts and state of mind of a young man who continues to walk around despite no longer having a beating heart. It's blackly comic, particularly in the protagonist's acerbic musings about the condition he and his fellow undead clan have found themselves in ("God, we move slow," he narrates), but also sobering in its view of decomposing creatures who can no longer remember who they were when they were alive, and finally swoon-worthy as our hero discovers it's not too late for him to feel and fall in love.
In a post-apocalyptic world where surviving human beings are protected by an enveloping city wall separating them from the roaming, cannibalistic zombies outside, R (Nicholas Hoult) is one of the grunting, mumbling undead, biding his time in an abandoned airport and internally asking himself the age-old question, "Is this all there is?" With the only thing to look forward to being his eventual transformation into one of the ravenous, skeletal "Boneys," R one day comes upon a small group of people in search of supplies and falls head over heels for Julie (Teresa Palmer), whose boyfriend, Perry (Dave Franco), he's just munched on. With the only memories R knows being the ones he picks up on as he eats others' brains, R suddenly becomes protective of Julie and takes her to his airplane hangout on the runway. She's naturally horrified at first, then begins to wonder why this zombie is so concerned with saving her rather than eating her. As R struggles to communicate through the words he manages to utter and the music he listens to on his record player, the two become sort of oddball friends. The time ultimately comes when Julie must try to return homeher father, military man Grigio (John Malkovich), is the leader beyond the wallsand R is reluctantly prepared to help her. After all, what kind of future could a zombie possibly have with a living girl? Right?
Faithfully based on the novel by Isaac Marion, "Warm Bodies" confidently blends numerous tones that shouldn't work when put togethersatire, horror, pathos, romanticismbut the film is elevated all the more by the peculiar combination. With this blissfully one-of-a-kind paragon, writer-director Jonathan Levine cements his place as one of the most underappreciated American filmmakers working today, not a weak link amongst this and his past efforts, the still-criminally-unreleased "All the Boys Love Mandy Lane
," 2008's "The Wackness
," and 2011's "50/50
." Even while succinctly commenting on the ways of technology and the modern worldhey, look, all those people who used to rush around the airport lost on their phones aren't much different than the zombies who now mindlessly stagger around the hangarsit is the unlikely relationship between R and Julie where "Warm Bodies" gets its fire. Seemingly more inspired by John Hughes than Romero, the film sees them bond as they spend time together holed up in the airplane, listen and dance to musicthere is a lovely montage set to Bruce Springsteen's "Hungry Heart"and take to the open airport runways as Julie instructs R how to drive. Complications ensue the closer they get to parting ways, but Julie's reaction to learning R killed Perry goes in a refreshing direction. Deep down inside, she admits, she always knew the truth.
One of the joys of the film is its lack of predictability, the narrative evolving in exciting new ways the further it presses on. Because of this, the third act of the film, especially, should not dare be revealed, though it can be mentioned that the twisting of genres continue to be juggled. Sly, good-natured humor referencing everything from "Pretty Woman" to Shakespeare's "Romeo and Juliet" gives way to tense, life-or-death chase sequences and an open-hearted sincerity. When the majority of movie releases (especially early on in the year) are variations on the same old thing, "Warm Bodies" delights in toying with expectations, in reimagining and occasionally trampling over clichés, in serving viewers fresh images and thoughts to pore over, in giving the audience a reason to sit up, take notice, and truly care
about the characters on the screen before them.
Nicholas Hoult has impressed in 2009's "A Single Man
" and, as a child, in 2002's affectionate "About a Boy
," but it is here, as the increasingly conscionable R, where he graduates to leading-man status. His job couldn't have been easy, a high-wire act of portraying a corpsy, pasty-faced lug but also a viable romantic hero, the closer he gets to Julie the more he starts to genuinely feel again, and Hoult gets the balance just right. It's an exceedingly complex and sympathetic performance worth notice. Playing his object of affection, Teresa Palmer (2011's "Take Me Home Tonight
") imbues Julie with strength, sweetness, and forlorn tinges of loss, an attractive, free-thinking twenty-something woman who has had to give up far more than her controlling father realizes. In concept, there is something admittedly skin-crawling about a living person becoming involved with a living dead guy, but the low-key way it is handled and eventually develops ingeniously solves this issue while never once stepping into frothy, frilly, offensively anti-feminist territory like the "Twilight
" movies did time and again. Mentioning those Stephanie Meyer adaptations at all seems wrong; "Warm Bodies" is so much smarter, thematically deeper, and charismatic that they warrant nothing more than the most superficial of comparisons. In spry supporting turns, Rob Corddry (2012's "Seeking a Friend for the End of the World
") is M, the closest thing R has to a best friend; Analeigh Tipton (2012's "Damsels in Distress
") brightens up her scenes as Julie's self-deprecating pal and confidante Nora; Dave Franco (2012's "21 Jump Street
") exits early as the ill-fated Perry, his role filling out as R gets a front-row seat to Perry's life with each handful of brain he eats, and John Malkovich (2010's "Secretariat
") gives unanticipated shades to Grigio, a protective father whose cynical world views need to change.
A touching story of rebirth, of dreams fulfilled, of lives saved by the powers of love and togetherness, "Warm Bodies" is a wake-up call against terminal apathy while offering hope for a better tomorrow. Jonathan Levine has declaratively carved out a place for himself as a writer-director with a clear voice, the compassion he lends to his characters an ideal foil for his provocative underlying messages, attuned observational comedy, and sublime music choices. A prime example of how an immaculate soundtrack can serve to promote a film to an even loftier level, Levine imagines John Waite's 1980s power ballad "Missing You" as R's mournful anthem of the former life he's lost, while other cuts not previously mentioned ("Patience" by Guns N' Roses, "Shelter from the Storm" by Bob Dylan, "Shell Suite" by Chad Valley, and "Yamaha" by Delta Spirit, among them) are just as indelibly used. Together, gradually but surely, R and Julie (and, by extension, Nicholas Hoult and Teresa Palmer) form an off-beat connection that is transcendent, carrying the picture to a conclusion as organic as it is uncanny, as sweeping as it is emotionally potent. It's so thrilling when all the elements of a film come together just right. Chill-inducing cadavers be damned, "Warm Bodies" is sheer bliss.