Warm Bodies is a difficult movie to sell to people. It’s a zombie movie, but it’s not a horror movie. It’s not especially scary and the violence is, by zombie movie standards, minimal. It’s a romance, but a romance in which the hero eats the brains of the heroine’s friends. It’s hilarious, but it’s not a straight comedy.
What Warm Bodies really is, is a fairytale. It’s the story of a beast who kidnaps and falls in love with a beautiful princess (the daughter of the human settlement’s leader) and who must fight monsters who want to kill and eat her. Like all the best fairytales, it’s extremely dark at its centre but comes out of that darkness to a gloriously warm and fuzzy ending.
The movie is built on a fantastic performance from Nicholas Hoult as R the zombie. It’s relatively easy to make a vampire sexy; all you need is some pale make-up and they’re supposed to be attractive anyway. It’s generally pretty easy to make a werewolf sexy as well, by simply showing them in their human form most of the time. Even ghosts can be sexy, in a translucent sort of way.
But to play a zombie that’s both recognisably a zombie and attractive – not just physically attractive (varying levels of make-up help with that) but to come across as a character other characters want to be around – is a considerable challenge, and the fact that the movie pulls it off is a testament to both Hoult and the make-up department. Even more importantly, R is not just tortured, but seriously funny. The combination of R’s internal monologue (‘don’t be creepy, don’t be creepy’) with Hoult’s not quite leering but not quite polite stares at Julie is both funny and strangely endearing.
Humour is one of Warm Bodies’ strongest assets. Much of it comes from R’s voiced-over thoughts, and the movie establishes its wry tone straight away with his long introductory inner monologue (‘my hoodie would suggest I was unemployed’). The living characters have less opportunity to be funny, but there’s a warm humour to some of Julie and Nora’s conversations that reassures us that the world is worth saving. And then there are the tiny little touches that go unnoticed by most but bring a smile to the faces of those who catch them, like the still-playing public announcement in the abandoned airport that fans of Airplane! will surely recognise.
The other ace up the film’s sleeve is its soundtrack. Alongside the original score is an evocative collection of songs that perfectly capture the slightly eerie but romantic tone. Some of the soundtrack choices might be a bit obvious (Sitting In Limbo springs to mind) but they work. Even R’s fondness for vinyl, which at this point is becoming something of a romantic comedy cliché, is put to good use as he responds to a conversation that would be a difficult one even if he could say more than one word at a time with the perfect musical choice of Shelter From The Storm.
The film is built on well-worn themes that are familiar but effective. The names alone (R, Julie, Nora the nurse, M), not to mention the balcony scene, are a clue to the writer’s desire to tell a story of love across the barricades. Then there’s the guy who’s lost and confused about what to do with his life, who feels like he’s weird and doesn’t understand why he doesn’t fit in, and there are the people who’ve forgotten how to connect with others and who shuffle through life without feeling anything until someone brings them out of it. There’s also a father who wants to build a wall around his daughter to protect her but doesn’t understand how to really live (played by the ever-reliable John Malkovich). They may be old stories, but they’re well told.
The film rests on Teresa Palmer’s shoulders as Julie almost as much as Nicholas Hoult’s as R. On a Young Adult Literary Heroine scale of Bella Swan to Katniss Everdeen, Julie is definitely nearer Katniss’ end, proving herself to be pretty handy with a firearm against a zombie hoard. She’s a more optimistic character though, rebelling against the idea that the world can never get better, and her determination to keep hoping and keep looking for another way drives the plot as much as R’s openness to new ideas and desperation to become something more. The film’s female characters are few in number, but they feel real enough and Palmer is a sufficiently likeable presence that the audience can believe she’s the sort of person to bring a zombie out of his stupor.
This is not a movie for the overly cynical. If you prefer your apocalypses dark and gritty and full of demonstrations of humankind’s inhumanity to humankind, this is not the film for you. On the other hand, if you are liable to be discombobulated by a romantic lead whose preferred breakfast comes with a side of human brain, you probably shouldn’t see it either. But if you’ve ever enjoyed a Grimm fairy tale, or a Dickensian ghost story, or It’s A Wonderful Life, or any fable that blends the macabre with the borderline cheesy, you would do well to seek out this little-seen gem as soon as possible.
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