What if Juliet was a post-apocalyptic scavenger, Romeo was a zombie who ate Paris' brains, and Mercutio was a monosyllabic Rob Corddry? Zombie romcom Warm Bodies takes us to a post-apocalyptic future in which zombies stalk the Earth eating human brains—at least until one walking corpse, R, falls for Julie, one of the last living girls.
But put aside the nods to Shakespeare. Warm Bodies is a funny and soft-hearted film that plays far more on zombie- and date-movie tropes than it does on the Bard, and puts an optimistic spin on the undead apocalypse. At its basis, this is a movie about how to be alive, told through the lens of a zombie's awakening.
Minor spoilers ahead...
"I should take better care of myself," says our amnesiac narrator as the movie begins. "Why can't I connect with people? Oh right, I'm dead." In just a few seconds, director Jonathan Levine makes it clear that Warm Bodies is a movie to root for. R (Nicholas Hoult) is a zombie a few branches removed from his Night of the Living Dead brethren. Having wandered the corridors of an airport for the last eight years, R has a sort of zombie locked-in syndrome. On the outside, he may be a groaning, shuffling mess, but on the inside, he's just a guy with a wry internal monologue and a longing for a better life.
When the film was first announced, Warm Bodies invited comparisons to Twilight because of its love affair between a human and a member of the walking dead. But R possesses something lacking from his more dramatic supernatural counterparts: a glorious, hilarious neurosis. R may not remember being alive (he doesn't even remember his name, save that it begins with "R"), but he's always comparing his undead state with what it would be like to be alive. It bugs him that he's constantly ramming into other zombies and never saying "Sorry." It bugs him that he's always surrounded by undead people but makes little connection beyond the turning of his head. It even bothers him that he's so damn pale.
But R's real heroism is that he's a struggler. He's not content to maintain his airport purgatory in silence. He seeks out his best zombie pal M (Rob Corddry) and they struggle to speak to one another — although their favorite word seems to be "hungry." He keeps an airplane home filled with keepsakes of the pre-apocalypse — knick-knacks, movies, and, most significantly, vinyl records. He loads up the turntable and tries to remember what it was like to be alive.
That struggle for something better is at the heart of Warm Bodies, and it's important for human and zombie alike. For zombies, giving in to their ennui means a fate worse than undeath: They become bonies, creatures of pure hunger who have stripped off their own skins. Bonies tend to leave zombies alone, but for humans, they're a far more fearsome foe than the usual breed of corpse. (Note to other filmmakers: the bonies are low-budget CG done right. They're obviously computer generated, but they're physically simple and match the world they exist within.)
As for humans, they're suffering from their own purgatory of mere existence. Possibly the last human settlement sits inside a walled city, where life isn't bad, but stagnant. They have electricity and a secure agricultural system, and seem generally content under the leadership of General Grigio (John Malkovich, who benevolently complements the younger actors when he could be stealing scenes). Grigio's daughter, Julie (Teresa Palmer), however, still thinks about airplanes and music and what people used to want to be when they grew up. When a pharmaceutical salvage mission turns tragic, circumstances cause R to become smitten with Julie, and he rescues her and brings her home to his airplane oasis (with a little help from his zombie effluvia). And thanks to the occasional snack on her ex-boyfriend Perry (Dave Franco)'s brains, he gets to know Julie and experience (if only vicariously) the imperfect life she left behind.
Warm Bodies won't be remembered as the year's most brilliant film — but it is a sweet movie that hits every one of its marks, usually with pizzazz. First and foremost, it's a very funny movie, playing nicely on R's zombie awkwardness and the characters' self-awareness about their situations. (For example, zombies are generally referred to as "corpses" by the human population, but they know when to trot out the z-word — and other words associated with the apocalypse.) And the presence of a talking, sentient zombie lets Levine play with the "human passing for a zombie" trope in a clever way, and his spin on the romcom montages — something usually so skippable — is delightful. Plus, the one over-the-top Romeo and Juliet scene was so perfect, and hit the beats of the play in such an unexpected way, that half the screening theater was in stitches. (The other half was muttering, "Oh, I get it, R and Julie.")
The dialogue and the physical comedy are the most memorable, but Levine's message in the movie is clear: that it's more important to live than to survive. R makes a great boyfriend in part because zombies are terrible at smalltalk, and the challenges of his zombification lend an intensity to everything he does and every thought he shares with Julie. It's R's struggle to live despite being dead (and Julie's admiration of that quest) that triggers a small change inside him with far-reaching consequences for not only zombie-kind, but humanity as well.
Ultimately, Levine hopes that, through Warm Bodies, a zombie will remind us all how to live. R may not quite hit such depths, but he's one zombie who is great fun to spend a date night with, and who's easy to fall for — brain eating and all.
All illustrations by Lauren Davis.