WARM BODIES makes me smile about as much as any movie in recent memory.
While it doesn’t achieve the inconceivable heights of The Princess Bride, Jonathan Levine’s adaptation of Isaac Marion’s novel is a wonderful, kind, uplifting movie that’s unabashedly sweet in beautifully strange way. Which is to say, it’s a romance of the boy sees girl, boy loves girl, boy eats brain of girl’s boyfriend, boy saves/kidnaps girl, girl eventually loves boy variety.
I wasn’t in any big rush to watch WARM BODIES, but after catching a brief clip of the opening of the movie, I decided to move it up the Netflix queue. I was rewarded with the kind of movie that makes me feel creatively rejuvenated. This is not to say that I am going to write a zombie romance (or a zombie story or a romantic story); rather, I mean that WARM BODIES is unique and small and it makes me want to get back to the keyboard and continue to find my own voice as a writer.
What drives that feeling most of all is the film’s positive and uplifting tone. It feels good, every so often, to fall into the fantasy that love can make the world a better place. It’s not a practical worldview, but it’s nice to indulge now and then. WARM BODIES posits that the zombie apocalypse can be overcome through emotional connection, that the relationship between zombie R (Nicholas Hoult) and human Julie (Teresa Palmer) can restart the dead hearts of zombies and return their humanity.
What helps to make this work is that while the world is overrun by zombies because of science, the film pushes the idea that we were already zombies through our attachment to our digital devices. R lives in at an airport and there’s a great flashback scene of humans at the airport pre-apocalypse and everyone is looking down at their smart phones and ignoring the world around them. That a disengaged, self-centered humanity is living a zombie-lite experience is nothing new, of course, but it’s nice to see zombies used not to represent humans but as a consequence of our contemporary humanity.
Not only that, but WARM BODIES posits that our salvation lies in becoming zombies, that if the world turns undead it can make us reevaluate our lives and come out for the better on the other side. It’s an argument for becoming more engaged with the people around us. I have some amount of quibble with the idea that all of this technology is a bad thing; one, the airport is not exactly the best place to call someone out for looking at their phone (there’s only so many Cinnabons a person can look at before the smart phone offers a better option), and I have far too many “internet friends” to label technology and the internet as our society’s Big Bad, but I do think there is something to be said for finding a balance. The key image in the film that causes the other airport zombies to start to feel something is a poster of two people holding hands, so the film is arguing that our humanity is tied, in part, to physical contact.
My biggest question going into the film was how they were going to handle a love story between a human and a stumbling, grunting, flesh-eating zombie. The film’s solution to this is to have R (he does not remember his own name) be the stumbling, grunting, flesh-eating zombie we’re familiar with, but to pair that with R’s still sharp and observant mind. R narrates much of the film to us, and he has an engaging, dryly witty view of the world. The stiltedness of his physicality is thus balanced perfectly with the fluidity of his inner monologue.
R, his best friend M (Rob Corddry), and a host of other zombies shuffle out into the city, where their paths cross with a group of humans who have ventured outside of their walled inner city to scavenge for supplies. This group includes Julie, her best friend Nora (Analeigh Tipton), and her boyfriend, Perry (Dave Franco). There’s a big fight but as soon as R sees Julie, he’s almost entranced. Almost, because while he has the “love at first sight” moment, he’s not so out of it that he doesn’t kill her boyfriend and eat his brain.
The brain eating part is really well done. First, I like that the film doesn’t fully distance R from the other zombies. While he seems more recently turned, while he still has an interest in human things (he collects items and brings them back to the passenger airplane he lives in), he’s still a zombie who likes to eat the brains of his prey because “they’re the best parts.” Brains allow zombies to ingest not only physical sustenance but the memories of their victim; thus, R learns of Julie through eating Perry’s brain.
Music plays a big role in the film, and the filmmakers have done a bang-up job picking songs that work on multiple levels. The first song R plays (on vinyl, no less) on his airplane is John Waite’s “Missing You,” which establishes his romantic bonafides. The scene is light-hearted enough that it solidifies how R is different from our usual zombies. The film also offers up Bruce Springsteen’s “Hungry Heart,” which is both the perfect choice to signify R’s yearning and is also just plain funny because of the song’s title.
R saves Julie from his flesh-eating pals and brings her back to his plane for safekeeping. And, also, because he has a thing for her. He doesn’t quite know how to woo her, and the fact that he wouldn’t know how to woo her even if he was totally human makes all of the scenes play with an earnest whimsy that helps to offset Julie’s uncomfortableness, both for the viewer and for her. It’s clear that R is different, which intrigues her, but she also has no interest in staying any longer than she has to. Pretty quickly, she catches on to the fact that R has a thing for her, which allows her to feel safe enough to give him some time to prove himself to her. It’s fun to watch them tool around the airport in a BMW convertible, but the danger – both from other “normal” zombies and the vicious Boneys (who have literally torn off their flesh) – is never that far away.
Before they make their final escape, Julie and R’s relationship has ignited something in the other zombies and they stop trying to eat her. After R and Julie leave, they start gathering around the poster of the silhouetted couple holding hands, and they decide to shuffle away from the airport after them.
R eventually admits to Julie that he killed Perry, which she believed but hoped to be wrong about. This causes her to abandon him in the middle of the night, and R shuffles off back towards home, only to run into M and the others, who tell him that the Boneys are after him and Julie. R sneaks into the walled city, finds Julie, and she takes him to her father, Colonel Grigio (John Malkovich), who is the leader of the humans and hates zombies and wants no part of believing that things can change in a positive manner.
But they do, of course, because of love.
The biggest fantasy in WARM BODIES might be love triumphing over war, but Jonathan Levine’s direction and adept pacing gives the act of Grigio’s men putting down their weapons just as powerful as R and Julie’s first kiss. Nicholas Hoult and Teresa Palmer are both fantastic as the leads, and Rob Corddry is every bit as good as R’s best friend. A good amount of the narrative’s advancement falls on Corddry’s shoulders, and he does a fantastic job playing the first zombie to have his humanity begin to awaken. With R completely head over heels for Julie, it’s up to M to do a lot of the heavy lifting to move the overall story forward.
Much like Mirror Mirror, WARM BODIES isn’t a complicated story or a deep story, but it a rather perfectly told story. From the opening scene to the last, this is a film that makes me smile, and that’s a fantastic thing for a movie to do.