Ah, young love. It’s a tale as old as time and no matter how far we come as a society will remain one of life’s greatest complexities. The uncertainty of affectionate advances, the confidence it takes to even talk to a member of the opposite sex, etc. etc. In Warm Bodies, the adaptation of Isaac Marion’s popular YA novel, Jonathan Levine takes us through the trials and tribulations of amorous adolescents we’ve seen countless times before but with one small detail thrown in to further complicate matters – a zombie apocalypse. Levine delivers this young adult yarn that is just bursting with originality. It’s a witty, genre-bending story, and a coming of age tale that takes an honest look at all manner of topics from, among other things, religion, society, love and basic human needs.
Moreover, it’s a highly self-aware story about two completely different and unlikely individuals coming together despite their differences and finding in each other what they couldn’t express or find in themselves. Warm Bodies plays in the zombie genre but isn’t content to stick by the rules or let its story be confined by the bleak atmosphere of the world it creates for itself. Yes it’s about life in the aftermath of an apocalypse (what isn’t these days right?) but it breaks free of the confines of zombie films we’ve come to know. There are liberties taken that are so creative that while they border on the absurd and seem blasphemous in the realm of the genre it offers something so crazy that it works because of the inventiveness. Zombies with feelings? Are you serious? That’s about as insane as vampires who sparkle in sunlight (take that Stephenie Meyer). But even as a parody of humans and how we are becoming more and more distanced from one another this story is so refreshing that it makes us wonder why hadn’t anyone tried something so wild and out of the box before. It’s honestly such a leap forward especially on the heels of a paradigm shift like Danny Boyle’s and Zack Snyder’s introduction of flesh eating antagonists who run like Olympic sprinters.
Warm Bodies is a yarn about zombies slowly losing their memories after the apocalypse that divided our society. What Levine and screenwriter Issac Marion do with the story is show a zombie as a complex individual replete with emotions and a, forgive the pun, hunger for life. We’re introduced to our apathetic love lorn hero R (played by Nicholas Hoult) with a voice over. It allows for exposition off-screen, with funny and cohesive plot moving monologues, while his on-screen persona presents himself as a bumbling mumbling poor sap looking for purpose. In doing so we find that zombies are not mindless eating machines. Like their living counter-parts, he wants more out of life, especially when R sets eyes on Julie (played by Teresa Palmer). It’s love at first sight or better first bite because he’s just eaten her boyfriend and by eating brains, a zombie can assimilate the memories of the deceased. That only makes R feel stronger for Julie and it enacts a change in him. In fact, enough change to save her from a horde of zombies and keep her safe in his lair; a decrepit jumbo jet where he keeps little mementos, trinkets and a quality assortment of vinyl records.
R tells us that “I don’t like hurting people but this is the world now“. It’s the uncommon clarity to the story and the narration that gives us more time to know R and he’s quite endearing. The story is smart enough to have a laugh at itself but as a zombie movie still has roots in horror. The zombies (or corpses) while misunderstood, are not the only threat to the post-apocalyptic human race. There’s a subspecies of the undead who are void of all feeling called Bonies. If being a zombie is bad, being that far gone is so much worse. Bonies eat humans and zombies. But as we learn from R’s narration, zombies are actually conflicted about eating people. In the film, a brilliant bit of world building, zombies are likened to purgatory and it’s up to them how they’ll spend eternity; long for life and bring themselves back to the land of the living or succumb to the nothingness and become a Bonie. One of the many themes that is on display is that of love and the potential it has to move the world.
Warm Bodies is frightening and funny but not simultaneously. Yet this apparent dystopian setting is not all doom and gloom either. It’s very smart and the tongue-in-cheek humor is more effective that you’d expect. Easily the best (perhaps only) rom-zom-com since Shaun of the Dead Warm Bodies plays its hand at being fierce and comical successfully. Yet in one of the many winning moves the film separates the two so even though it seems like a mish-mash of genres and plots, nothing is over layered or forced.
There’s lots of great scenes but some of the best find Nicholas Hoult and Teresa Palmer, like any teenagers who are unsure of themselves, using music to express their feelings. Well leave it to Jonathan Levine to pepper this highly unconventional love story with a fantastically eclectic soundtrack that is as varied as this story that puts an eyebrow raising spin on traditional zombie lore/cannon. It’s not just the idea that comes across as a stroke of brilliance it’s the song choices (like Bob Dylan and M83) that knock it out of the park and really sell the idea. In light of the patchwork of ideas, themes and plot devices on display there’s really nothing that doesn’t work. Whether Julie and R are enjoying a tender moment or running for their lives, Warm Bodies takes the time to have a laugh at itself. But it never indulges for more than is necessary and that keeps the plot, the dialog and pace moving swiftly and successfully.
Of the many messages found in Warm Bodies, nothing is more prevalent than the idea that love can set you free. But how much human spirit can you find in a movie about zombies? The answer, a lot. R feels remorse for hurting people because he knows that’s what he used to be. He eats brains because he wants to feel something again alive. He’s tired of being a monosyllabic member of the undead. It goes back to the idea of forgetting and rediscovering what it means to be alive and the triumph of the human spirit. There’s also a nice duality to both R and Julie that find them, despite their differences, giving each other life again. To these characters living in a world that has parted many of our civilization from the land of the living, thanks to the power of love (queue Huey Lewis), a zombie apocalypse is nothing more than an inconvenience on par with the common cold. Give it time and you can kick it. Right now, this very fun and quite heartwarming story has got some legs to be one of 2013’s most memorable films but is a highly enjoyable and unexpectedly endearing flick none the less.
G-S-Talking Point: Zombies have changed a lot over the years. But what kind of zombie do you prefer: The slow moving zombie or the Olympic sprinter zombie? Also, what are your go-to zombie films?