The loving dead
Eat your heart and brains out, zombie Shakespeare
As anyone who pays attention to bylines may have noticed by now, I take my zombie entertainments seriously. As a genre, the zombie film has the potential to be rich in metaphor, and as such serves as a kind of Rorschach test for both filmmaker and us more philosophically minded zombie disciples. I’m not talking so much about the standard “shamblers vs. runners” debate, but rather as a tool for exploring aspects of existentialism.
Ever since George Romero’s initially ill-received Night of the Living Dead (1968) was re-assessed as arguably the most important horror film of the 20th century (not hyperbole on my part—the implicit nihilism and metaphorical aspects completely revised what a horror film could and would be), the zombie has shambled in to become part of the fabric of pop culture. Mostly it boils down to: We have met the zombie and he is us.
And that’s also why so few zombie efforts succeed. Sure, absolute garbage like Zombieland did well at the box office, but that’s because it was a 90-minute fart joke (metaphorically speaking—the only metaphor that can be attached to it) built around a half-assed narrative. As a zombiephile first and American second, I found its promotion as “America’s answer to Shaun of the Dead” insulting. Where the Edgar Wright/Simon Pegg homage to all things “zed” was brilliant homage/satire, Zombieland was little more than an extended Twinkie commercial.
But it turns out that the new zom-rom-com, Warm Bodies, is a reasonable offering. It’s not a groundbreaking re-examination of the genre, but it is a reasonably clever entry to the mythos that never condescends to its audience. And it takes its admittedly loopy premise seriously enough, while also mixing in a sense of humor that never ridicules the essential elements. Sometimes that’s all it takes.
Here we have America a few years after the rise of the dead and the ensuing fall of the living. The few folks who huddle behind a walled-off sector of the city don’t care about what brought about the plague, because they are too busy staying alive. The dead don’t care, because they’re dead. Well, aside from one zombie who we come to know as “R” (Nicholas Hoult) whose heart begins to flutter when he spies a hottie breather named Julie (Teresa Palmer) on salvage patrol. He tries the ever-reliable approach to stealing a woman’s heart of eating the brains of her boyfriend, which, um, gives R the dude’s memories and kick starts his heart. I guess it’s no sillier a premise than the dead rising and eating the living. Of course, her old man (John Malkovich) doesn’t approve. He just wants to blow the kid’s brain out. And so it goes, as it has since all the way back to Romeo and Juliet, if not earlier.
Ultimately, Warm Bodies delivers by balancing a sweet li’l love story while maintaining the underlying grottiness of the zombie premise. While there’s nothing that really approaches the over-the-top gut-crunching of The Walking Dead (which is really funny, considering that a 10-year-old can’t watch this movie without a chaperone, but can turn on the TV to enjoy Rick and his posse feed zombies through the woodchipper in all its gut-misting glory), it still manages to endear with its unassuming gallows humor. It also helps that the cast is uniformly charming. Even the living-dead ones.