Jonathan Levine’s zombie flick adds a little life to the genre
Another year, another zombie apocalypse. You’d think our cinematic renaissance of the living dead, which kicked off almost 11 years ago with Danny Boyle’s genre-reviving 28 Days Later, would’ve burnt out by now. Yet the craze continues unabated, just as resilient as the shambling, brain-eating folk who populate Warm Bodies, writer/director Jonathan Levine’s unexpectedly clever spin around some well-trod terrain.
Based on a popular novel by Isaac Marion, the film begins with our hero, R (he can’t remember any more than the first letter of his first name), meandering through a decimated airport alongside a teeming crowd of moaning fellow corpses. Nicholas Hoult, who’ll make you feel very old when you realize he’s the kid from About a Boy, carries himself with a dead-eyed shuffle and prosthetic rotting flesh. We’re privy to R’s thoughts through quick-witted, and at times uproarious, narration. It’s hard for him to recall a time before the outbreak, but he guesses from the way he’s dressed that he was probably unemployed. R and his best friend (Weymouth’s own Rob Corddry) like to sit around the airport bar all day, occasionally articulating a word or two.
All this changes when R meets Julie (Teresa Palmer). She’s part of humanity’s last holdout, fortified behind a barricade in this unnamed city. On a routine mission to salvage medicine from local pharmacies, Julie and her boyfriend, Perry (James Franco’s lookalike kid brother Dave), stumble upon R and his buddies, and PG-13 carnage ensues.
The funny thing is, it turns out that when you eat somebody’s brains you end up experiencing all their memories. So while R is busy snacking on Perry’s cerebellum he’s suddenly flooded with all the poor guy’s wonderful experiences with Julie, and immediately falls madly in love with her. So flushed is R with affection that he rescues Julie from his pals, secretly stashing her in an abandoned airplane where he likes to hide out and listen to old vinyl records. Because in this movie’s droll universe zombies can be hipsters, too.
It’s an awkward courtship, to say the least. R doesn’t have a lot of game, given that he’s dead. But a strange thing happens as he hangs out with Julie. R stops rotting and starts remembering things. He even manages to get two or three words out in a row. Apparently, love does conquer all, even zombiehood.
Marion’s book was a riff on Romeo and Juliet (in case the main character’s names didn’t tip you off), but it’s easy to read Levine’s adaptation as a devastatingly funny send-up of the Twilight phenomenon. I was at a Barnes & Noble recently and saw an entire section devoted to “teen paranormal romance.” Warm Bodies is at its funniest when the film is digging into the messy details of just how such romances might work.
Of course, there are still generic plot requirements to be serviced. Naturally, the paranoid leader of the human resistance is Julie’s father, played with an admirably straight face by John Malkovich. He’s one of the last guys on Earth, which makes him probably the very last guy on Earth who’d want to see his daughter hooking up with a zombie boyfriend. There’s also that whole matter of eating her ex, but the course of true love never did run smooth.
Warm Bodies is puckish, witty and made with a good deal more care than the usual supernatural teensploitation. Levine helmed 2011’s cancer comedy 50/50, as well as 2008’s wonderfully druggy coming-of-age comedy The Wackness, which you might recall as the movie where Ben Kingsley shags an Olsen twin in a barroom phone booth. He’s got a knack for punchy music cues, and he elicits winning performances from his leads. Hoult works wonders with the dry voice-over narration, and Palmer is appealing enough to sell us on some character decisions that aren’t exactly plausible.
Warm Bodies won’t be mistaken for art, but I liked it better than Zombieland if you’re looking for something in a similar wheelhouse. And while it’s not quite as funny as that last Twilight movie, Breaking Dawn wasn’t strictly meant to be a comedy.
Starring Nicholas Hoult, Teresa Palmer, Rob Corddry, Analeigh Tipton and John Malkovich. Based on the book by Isaac Marion. Written and directed by Jonathan Levine. At Boston Common, Fenway and in the suburbs.