Romantic Dinner, by Aaron Pinkston
Of all the classic movie monsters, it seems like zombies are the last without a personal perspective. There have been countless films that let us look into the motivations of vampires, werewolves and the like. Peter Jackson even asked us to look into a giant ape’s heart and understand where he is coming from. With zombies, however, we get none of that. Of course, this is mostly by design, as zombies have always been the lumbering (sometimes sprinting) man-eating machines with no remorse, only one desire — the taste of human flesh. Even great zombie film parodies like Shaun of the Dead and Zombieland haven’t given these monsters the time to explain themselves. Jonathan Levine’s new film Warm Bodies puts this to the forefront, finally giving zombies a voice in the matter — both figuratively and literally.
Nicholas Hoult (About a Boy, X-Men: First Class) stars as R, an undead walker most succinctly described as an “emo zombie” — for his mopey qualities (physical and ideological) and his penchant for collecting vinyl records. He spends most of his time shuffling around an abandoned airport with his zombie brethren, including his best friend M, played by Rob Corddry. But everything changes when he encounters Julie (Teresa Palmer) while munching on her boyfriend’s brains. Due in part by a clever idea that zombies take on memories of those they ingest, but also in line with his emo tendencies, R falls hard for Julie. What transpires is a strange re-telling of the Romeo & Juliet story — even when Julie inexplicably sees something in R, her father (John Malkovich) being the leader of the remaining humans doesn’t help. Also complicating their relationship are a group of zombies called “bonies,” which are what happens when the emo zombies decide it is time for them to give up and stop being conflicted about eating people.
Warm Bodies is undoubtedly a silly film, and that’s a good thing, for the most part. Its offbeat humor is seldom rip-roaring, but completely infectious — if you’re not smiling through most of this film you may be a, well, you know. Rob Corddry, clearly at his best, steals the show and will go down as one of the best comedic characters of the year. What’s more, the film is able to find a balance between being really sweet but also inventive with its zombie mythology. It isn’t totally consistent (the film likes to make jokes about the zombies being slow, but lets them run whenever it chooses), but there are definitely some cool ideas, breathing life into the zombie genre which is becoming increasingly stale. The film is at its absolute best in its small moments between characters. The love story between R and Julie is surprisingly sweet and works, despite the obvious silliness. The early scenes where R and Julie do little more than spend time together in an airplane, listening to music and getting to know each other are some of the best in the film. Also, the chemistry between Hoult and Corddry is surprisingly good for such a strange pairing of talents.
The biggest snag in the film comes with trying to manufacture thrills with the conflict between the regular, everyday zombies and the bonies. It’s easy to see what the film is trying to do with this extra level of the undead, and with enough care they could have been an added benefit, but it ultimately feels half-baked. Really, the bonies exist to provide something like scares and the major action setpiece at the climax of the film, which makes the film feel like it’s trying to be something it’s not — or at least, what it is at it’s best. Confounding matters, the effects of the bonies is really quite bad. Their design is very generic, not interesting, and their movements are funny. Perhaps if the bonies didn’t look so awful (plasticy, fake), or had any sense of realism (they seem to get stronger, able to run faster), this particular problem wouldn’t have the impact.
Still, I feel like the film didn’t need the bonies at all, as the conflict between humans and zombies should be enough, especially considering the strange romance at the center of it all. In a way, the bonies allowed the story to completely wash over any tension in human-zombie relations way too quickly and easily — within a matter of frames, the years of horror leading up to these moments are forgotten without any struggle, even with the very broadly drawn human leader played by Malkovich, who is sleepwalking through much of the film. Sure, we’ve seen conflicts like this before in films, but given more care it could have totally worked in creating the stakes that artificially injected.
Despite the problems in the second half of the film, Warm Bodies is totally worth seeing. It is cutesy and silly, but in the most pleasant way. It may not satisfy any hardcore zombie fans, but there are enough new ideas and a really fantastic point-of-view allows the film to feel fresh without lampooning the genre.