The movie year gets it first big, sweet surprise with Warm Bodies, a funny and surprisingly moving take on the zombie genre from director Jonathan Levine, who gave us the wonderful 50/50.
To call Warm Bodies a straight-up zombie flick would be off the mark. It's a love story set in a horror movie world that actually works wonderfully as a love story. It's everything the Twilight saga wanted to be, but failed at miserably. It's a movie that knows it's ridiculous, embraces its ridiculousness, and emerges as something that feels astonishingly real and true to life.
The movie opens on a red-hoodied figure we will come to know as R (Nicholas Hoult in a stardom-cementing role), a zombie with a fried memory, but still able to conduct a relatively cohesive inner narrative. That inner narrative is heard through a Hoult voiceover, a voiceover that is clear and concise. But when R tries to speak out of his mouth, he slurs and moans and groans.
He's a lost boy in a zombie world yearning to articulate. He's also a collector, spending his days in an airport and residing in an abandoned jet, surrounded by trinkets and vinyl albums. Of course vinyl is the music delivery mode of choice for zombies. In R's opinion, vinyl is more "alive."
Enter Julie (Teresa Palmer, finally getting a role she deserves), a human survivor and the daughter of an emotionally dead general (John Malkovich). On patrol for medicine, her band of humans is attacked, and her boyfriend (Dave Franco) loses his life and his brains in the melee. R and Julie's eyes meet in the aftermath, and R immediately starts to change.
George Romero fans looking for zombie thrills in Warm Bodies might find themselves slightly disappointed. The movie is PG-13, so brains get eaten in an almost gentle fashion, and the zombie makeup is far from gory. I must also mention that the "Bonies," which are zombies that have degenerated to the point of being skeletons, look terrible. They are the sort of CGI creation that stops a movie in its tracks whenever they pop up on screen.
Some zombie purists might find it silly that R can eat a brain and then feel and see the memories of his victim. For those of you who criticize the notion that one could experience such a sensation after eating a brain, I would like to remind you that you are watching a movie in which THE DEAD HAVE COME BACK TO LIFE AND ARE WALKING AROUND. Pretty much anything goes in that sort of universe.
Hoult and Palmer have adorable screen chemistry. This is a thinly veiled Romeo and Juliet replay, and the two even have a balcony scene. R doesn't remember his full name, only that his name starts with R, so we can assume it's Romeo, Rome, Roman ... probably not Rupert, right? Julie is a play on Juliet of course, and Rob Corddry plays R's best zombie friend, M (Mercutio ... right?).
Speaking of Corddry, he owns his scenes in this movie. The man is so gifted as a comedic actor and, as he showed in Hot Tub Time Machine, he can handle the emotional stuff with major finesse. Like R, M and his band of zombies begin to awaken and heal themselves when they remember what love is. It's goofy, but Corddry sells it with real humor and soul. He is just one of those guys who can show up in any movie and make that movie better. Also excellent in a supporting role is Analeigh Tipton as Nora, Julie's best friend, confidant and certified movie laugh-getter.
Hoult and Palmer both have thick accents (Hoult is British, Palmer is Australian), but you can't tell from this movie. (They have convincing American accents.) Hoult spends much of the movie sweetly trying to express himself like a love-struck teen who can't put the words together. Palmer is so damned stunning that many can identify with Hoult's struggle to get the words right. They are one of the more endearing screen couples in many a year, and one of them is dead with all kinds of icky veins all over his neck. That doesn't say much for the state of American romance movies.
The film is based on Isaac Marion's novel. He is apparently working on a sequel, and you can already read an excerpt from a prequel to his novel called The New Hunger, available on his website (www.isaacmarion.com).
If you are a proud Twilight hater like me, you can rest assured that Warm Bodies has very little in common with that cinematic brown sludge. It's a refreshing, heartwarming, humorous take on a society that has become emotionally stagnant and is in severe need of reanimation. You might find yourselves looking at your smartphone a little less after seeing this one.