Warm Bodies Directed by Jonathan Levine Written by Jonathan Levine Starring: Nicholas Hoult, Teresa Palmer, John Malkovich, Rob Corddry Summit Entertainment Rated PG-13 | 97 Minutes Release Date: February 1st, 2013
Back in 1993, Bob Balaban directed an obscure romantic zombie comedy (a rom-zom-com, if you’re one of those people) called My Boyfriend’s Back, about a teenager who returns from the dead as a zombie to take his high school sweetheart to the prom.
I won’t lie to you, I secretly kind of love My Boyfriend’s Back – it’s a guilty pleasure, what can I say. As a kid, I would rent the VHS tape every other weekend – along with The Sandlot and Critters – until the tracking button on the VCR begged for mercy.
Guilty pleasures (code for ‘bad movies’) are essential to appreciating good cinema. I won’t say My boyfriend’s Back paved the way to my discovery of films like Touch of Evil or The Seventh Seal, but as the late film critic Pauline Kael once said, “Movies are so rarely great art, that if we can’t appreciate great trash, there is little reason for us to go.” Amen, sister.
Balaban’s movie is great trash, and worth seeing for, if nothing else, early appearances by actors like Philip Seymour Hoffman, Matthew McConaughey, Renée Zellweger, and Matthew Fox.
Why am I talking so much about this damn movie? Well, because I found myself thinking of My Boyfriend’s Back and films like Edgar Wright’s Shaun of the Dead and Dan O’Bannon’s Return of the Living Dead while watching Jonathan Levine‘s latest film, Warm Bodies, based on the novel by Isaac Marion.
The premise is simple: a zombie (Nicholas Hoult) falls in love with a human girl (Teresa Palmer) and, in the process, regains his humanity. It’s the kind of ‘love conquers all’ story that attracts hopeless romantics and horror hounds alike. We’re all capable of loving and being loved, even if we’re a rotting corpse with an intense hunger for human brains.
What I most enjoy about Jonathan Levine (The Wackness, 50/50) is his ability to create heartfelt, poignant moments that speak not only to the power of love (cue Huey Lewis and the News!), but the inherent yearning inside all of us for human connection. His male characters are often lonely, incomplete people who meet their soulmates in the wrong place at the wrong time.
In 50/50, Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s character is dying of cancer when he falls in love with Anna Kendrick (and who can blame him, I mean seriously have you seen her? She’s great!) and here, Levine treats the zombie epidemic as a sort of cancer that can be cured by remembering what makes us human. As Hoult’s zombie boy spends time with Palmer’s flesh-and-blood girl, he goes into a remission of sorts, becoming more alive and less undead as they grow closer.
Only in the confines of a dark movie theater can a zombie take a girl by the hand and it give you a blissful, romantic buzz. Here’s this lonely corpse, shuffling about an abandoned airport in the middle of an American wasteland, searching for something to make him feel alive – and you connect with him; understand him. And when he finds love, maybe you feel optimistic – maybe you feel that love can conquer all, and that’s a nice feeling to have, especially when you’re watching a post-apocalyptic movie about reanimated dead things.
Aside from my obviously favorable emotional response to Levine’s film, Warm Bodies offers humorous moments that reference classic horror flicks like Lucio Fulci’s 1979 Zombie while establishing an all-new set of rules for the zombie mythology.
In Levine’s land of the dead, zombies eat the brains of humans to feel alive – they’re able to absorb their victim’s memories and, eventually, regain the ability to speak and even appreciate elements of human culture like music.
Levine sculpts the main character as a zombie who may have been a hipster in his former life. He collects vinyl records, insisting that the sound is better, and the film relishes in using songs like M83’s “Midnight City” and The Black Keys’ “Lonely Boy” to backfill the wasteland with the kind of indie music you might here in Urban Outfitters while trying on skinny jeans.
Perhaps my favorite element of Levine’s film is the distinction between zombies and what the undead ultimately become: horrific nightmares called “Bonies.” These twisted skeletons (whose jerky movements are obviously inspired by Ray Harryhausen’s skeleton warriors from Jason and the Argonuts) are what zombies become when they lose all of their humanity – they’re terrifying, Dementor-esque creatures that exist solely to devour everything in their path.
It’s this kind of “get busy living or get busy dying” immediacy given to Hoult and his undead brethren that raises the stakes and forces them into action. Either the dead remember what made them feel alive and embrace love, or become something worse than death – something beyond saving. It’s kind of cool, and one of the few times I can think of where zombies have an enemy other than humans (unless you count that shark from ’79’s Zombie).
Teresa Palmer and Nicholas Hoult have great chemistry and carry the film’s absurd premise to believable territory, while John Malkovich simply phones in his performance. I guess Malkovich was just bored in-between making RED and RED 2 and decided to stumble onto Levine’s set and deliver a few lines of dialogue before falling asleep somewhere.
Rob Corddry (Hot Tub Time Machine), on the other hand, joins in on the fun as Hoult’s best undead friend, who aids the lovebirds in their journey and fights the Bonies with drunken master-esque combat skills. Every time I see Corddry in a movie, I’m left wondering why he isn’t in more films – with bigger parts. I think he’s hilarious and, given the opportunity, could be more of a screen presence than he’s been permitted thus far.
Overall, Warm Bodies is a fine edition to Jonathan Levine’s ever-expanding body of work – a zombie twist on the classic Beauty and the Beast story. You’ve got a zombie named ‘R’ and a girl named Julie – sounds like a modern day Romeo & Juliet, or – more accurately – Romero & Juliet.
It may not be art, but it isn’t exactly trash either – at least not on the same level as My Boyfriend’s Back. In the spirit of Ruben Fleischer’s Zombieland, Warm Bodies is a funny, heartwarming escape from the now-standard bleak zombie survival epic.