The fad of the post-apocalyptic and supernatural-on-human romance is probably here to stay. Aside from Twilight and a slew of supernatural teen books and movies, the book industry has figured out how to make things like Pride and Prejudice and Zombies and if it’s not already on your Netflix instant queue you can watch a former president use his wheelchair to fight werewolf-Hitler in FDR: American Badass! Coming soon to a theater near you, long-haired Brad Pitt will fight some uneasily fast-moving zombie creatures while that Inception noise plays in World War Z.
The genre has gotten weird, and it’s hard to tell parodies from the ones taking themselves seriously.
From its very beginning Warm Bodies, based on the 2011 book of the same name, is aware of this flood of supernatural romance and zombified storytelling. The film chooses not to be a throwaway teen romance and not just a spoof of the genre either. Often less Twilight and more Pushing Daisies or Shaun of the Dead, the movie plays with the physicality of the walking dead, both through slapstick comedy (watching zombies try to walk like humans is funny) and detailed metaphor (the grunting, staring zombie who gets his heart racing by a girl trumps your typical grunting, staring awkward lovelorn boy).
Writer-director Jonathan Levine (50/50, The Wackness) tells of a corpse named R (without a brain, he can’t remember the rest of his name) who differs from other zombies in that he “just wants to connect.” This message comes across both through Nicholas Hoult’s more articulate narration layered over images of zombie R doing undead things and through the images of R’s zombie twee Little Mermaid bachelor pad which is decked out with vintage knick knacks and a record player he can use to play some Bob Dylan. When not listening to records, though, R socializes, or rather grunts at and eats flesh with his best friend M (Daily Show correspondent and Adult Swim short-attention-span-clown-all-star Rob Corddry).
One day when they are scouting out some human flesh-food (as zombies do), R sees a human girl and falls for her not just through movie magic but also because he is physically eating the brains of her ex-ex-boyfriend (“ex” as in ex- but also “ex” as in dead) Dave Franco. The closest that corpses come to dreaming, we learn, is through chewing on some human brain and recounting all of the brain’s memories. The morbid action makes for some vivid and heart-rending images of childhood and adolescence as R, with no memories of his own, lives vicariously through the guy’s memories, both the regular boy-girl type ones and the darker zombie-apocalyptic ones. Through flashbacks and old-fashioned teen romance the movie shows the trials of falling in love and living a life that is not really yours.
The film conveys a simple and maybe hackneyed message — that true love can turn a slacker into less of a slacker — but it does so in a way that is refreshing and enjoyable (and with a nice soundtrack!). The movie’s loose adaptation of Romeo and Juliet — most evident during a brief balcony scene and also whenever you realize that everyone’s names are R and Juliet and Perry and Norah and M all correspond to R+J characters) — hits just hard enough, managing not to be “Romeo and Juliet and Zombies” in the same way that the movie doesn’t turn into “Twilight and Zombies.” The play on physicality and logic of zombiehood makes Warm Bodies fun and meaningful in a way that doesn’t just make you invested in the relationship of the lead couple; it draws you into a set of common feelings shared by the majority of humanity. And also some zombies.