Can a zombie movie be an ideal date movie? “Warm Bodies” is just such a film because it’s more love story than horror story, and it’s a delight from start to finish. (It's a zom-rom-com, really.) That’s not to say it doesn’t have some very good scares, but if you’re looking for a fun romantic comedy you’d be hard pressed to find one in the theaters as charming as this one.
Nicholas Hoult gives a marvelous comic performance as R, the teen zombie looking for something more in life than just shambling around aimlessly and feasting on human brains. He can’t remember his full name, only that it starts with an R, because after he died in a worldwide plague his brain isn’t working on all cylinders. Still, even in his limited capacity, he wants more out of (after) life.
Then one day he and his fellow marauders have a fight with some of the remaining humans left in the world. R takes one look at Julie (Teresa Palmer), the spunky blond kicking zombie ass, and his dead heart starts to come back. He feels drawn towards her and rescues her. Soon, their ensuing adventures together start to play like two nervous teens on a first date.
It’s a funny conceit as R tries to make conversation with Julie but is tongue-tied, not because he’s a nervous virgin but because he a monosyllabic dead guy. The laughs are enhanced throughout because we hear what Z thinks but can’t articulate, and any resemblance to an inarticulate teenager is purely intentional. “Don’t say something stupid, don’t say something stupid”, his inner monologue warns, but then he utters a growl and feels like a fool. It’s truths like this that give writer/director Jonathan Levine’s satire so much heart and humor than any typical horror movie parody like “A Haunted House”. (My middling review of that movie here: http://exm.nr/UeapJ0)
Levine adds a lot of cheeky satire to the mix. Humans stumble around like zombies texting on their cells, and R dispassionately reads about the Kardashians in an old copy of Us magazine. (Isn't their success a harbinger of a coming zombie apocalypse?) And Levine nails Julie’s seen-it-all teen, but still gives her a maturity to see beyond R’s blue skin and stilted gait. Both Hoult and Palmer have huge, expressive, blue eyes and the way they use them to gaze affectionately at each other is palpable. Soon, Julie’s acceptance of R starts to bring him back to life. The powers of love transform, even for zombies. It’s a sweet message and as the rest of the zombie population follows suit, the film owes less to George Romero and more to Leo Buscaglia.
Still, there are some very scary zombies in this movie. They’ve dwindled down to just rotted skeletons and are appropriately called “bonies”. They chase our lovers all over the decayed city and provide some effective ‘jump in your seat’ moments. Then the intrepid couple finds their way back to base camp where Julie’s military dad protects the city. He’s played by John Malkovich, who could do cool and sinister in his sleep, and his scenes where he’s reluctant to accept his daughter’s new boyfriend plays like a knowing satire of every father trying to hang onto his ‘little girl’ a bit longer.
Rob Corddry as a kind-hearted zombie and Analeigh Tipton as Julie’s best friend ably support the leads, but the show is really all about Hoult and Palmer. They strike the right balance between earnestness and cynicism in their teens, and it’s fun to see this odd couple work through their differences. My favorite scene was where she invites him to spend the night but insisted he sleep on the floor rather than in her bed. The teenage audience around me howled at that all-too-familiar scenario, but Levine is nothing if not knowing in his poking fun at teen life as well as all the zombie movie clichés. I laughed a lot during this romp, easily the most fun at a horror movie since “Zombieland’. (http://exm.nr/TL7D8d)
It’s been a good year for horror thus far with a couple of standouts sure to be on my 2013 list of the best in horror – “Mama” and now, “Warm Bodies.” And Nicholas Hoult is one of the best young actors to watch these days. He aces his very tricky role here, with a wonderful sense of comedy and pathos beyond his years. I’ve liked him in everything he’s done since “About A Boy” and now he gives one of the better horror performances in recent years. Give him, and this offbeat love story a chance, and I think you’ll feel as much affection for it as I did. Warm bodies, all heart - that's what it is.