Jonathan Levine’s Warm Bodies is better than it should be, not as good as it could be and somehow irresistibly likable. If you’ve seen the trailer, you pretty much know what the movie is — a romantic comedy where one of the leads is a zombie and the other isn’t. It’s kind of a horror movie take on a certain famous play about star-crossed lovers by Mr. Shakespeare — complete with a balcony scene, but with added zombie action and played for laughs. If it’s rarely much more than that — and occasionally it is — it’s never anything less. Considering how few movies — especially at this time of year — pull even that much off, this is really no mean feat. Plus, Warm Bodies solves the problem that has always defeated George Romero: how to make the walking dead sympathetic. (Why it never occurred to him that it might help if they stopped viewing humans as luncheon, I do not know.)
A good deal of what works about Warm Bodies lies with the casting, especially Nicholas Hoult as R, the lovestruck zombie. Though he’s been in other movies — most notably as the student with a crush on Colin Firth in A Single Man, most famously as Hank McCoy/Beast in X-Men: First Class — Hoult remains best known for playing the boy in About a Boy. This is his first shot at carrying a film, and regardless of whether it propels him to actual stardom, he certainly pulls it off. Teresa Palmer (probably best known for I Am Number Four, which isn’t saying much) makes a good match as the object of his affections, Julie. Analeigh Tipton (Damsels in Distress) plays an agreeably sharp-tongued best friend of Julie, and the rarely well-used Rob Corddry (Hot Tub Time Machine) is excellent as R’s zombie pal, M. The only cast member with cause for complaint here is John Malkovich, who isn’t given much to do (but who has certainly been in far worse movies).
The film does a shrewd balancing act with the horror elements. It downplays them less for purposes of audience discomfort, one suspects, than for that PG-13 rating (not that I think the movie would be better with more blood and violence), but the horror content is most certainly there. This, after all, is a picture where the lovers “meet cute” when their eyes lock while R is in the process of eating her boyfriend (Dave Franco) — not that we care much because her boyfriend is pretty much a jerk. It is also a film in which our hero’s knowledge of the girl is primarily obtained by eating said boyfriend’s brains. (Eating your victims’ brains gives you their memories, which may not be established zomboid behavior, but who’s to say?) It helps, of course, that R has been established as a kind of high-end zombie, whose wry observations on himself and his world form an amusing narration.
Most of the real horror, however, is given over to the lowest common denominator zombie — the irredeemable “bonies,” who are as skeletal as their name suggests. The more human-like zombies are something else — and something that begins to change as they — like R — become more human. To the degree that the film has a theme, it lies in this idea of reclaiming one’s humanity, but this shouldn’t be taken too far or too seriously. Overall, though — and despite managing to generate a certain amount of tension along the way — this is more comedic than not. It’s rarely hysterically funny, but it manages to maintain an amusing giddiness for most of its length, which is perhaps the best approach for a movie about a zombie-human romance. Rated PG-13 for zombie violence and some language.
Playing at Regal Biltmore Grande, United Artists Beaucatcher Cinema 7