Dawn of the undead
Warm Bodies goes straight on to my guilty-pleasures list. It’s the latest entry in a rare but amusing pop-culture tradition dating back at least as far as 1955’s Joe MacBeth, which reimagined Shakespeare’s famed play among the gangs of Chicago. More famously, there was Forbidden Planet, which used the bare bones of The Tempest to support a pre-Star Trek yarn of interstellar exploration.
Warm Bodies is set in the fairly near future, after a zombie plague has swept the globe, dividing civilization into survivors huddled in the wreckage behind makeshift but formidable walls against those outside those walls: a race of staring, decaying zombies. These gray ghouls, shuffling around the runways and concourses of an abandoned airport, have no apparent memory of their past identities; all they know is to stumble into town occasionally on one of their periodic raids in search of living human flesh to feed upon. Among them is a young man (Nicholas Hoult) who may have been anywhere between 18 and 22 when the plague took him; he doesn’t remember his name, but he thinks it may have begun with an “R.” Meanwhile, on the human side of the wall, there’s the daughter (Teresa Palmer) of the enclave’s commander (John Malkovich); her name is Julie. Hmm … “R” and Julie—is this ringing any bells?
Before R meets Julie—even before we do—he shows evidence of being less zombified than the other denizens of the airport. He has a lair of his own in one of the derelict planes on the runway where he likes to listen to vinyl LPs from the heyday of rock ’n’ roll. He even has a friendship of sorts with a fellow zombie (Rob Corddry); they meet every day in one of the abandoned bars to sit and, after their fashion, converse in growling, inarticulate syllables. (You know, guy talk.) It isn’t much, but it’s more than any of the other zombies can manage—they barely acknowledge each other’s existence.
R and Julie’s paths cross when Julie, her boyfriend Perry (Dave Franco) and her best friend Nora, who happens to be an aspiring nurse (Sacramento native Analeigh Tipton), all venture outside the walls on a patrol to forage for supplies and dispatch any wandering zombies with bullets to their heads. R and a gang of his own attack them, R kills Perry and begins devouring him. But when he gets to eating the brain, he also ingests Perry’s memories of Julie. When he sees Julie cowering in the corner amid the slaughter, he recognizes her, and the late Perry’s memory kindles a spark of humanity in R. Rather than make Julie the next course on his menu, he smuggles her back to his airplane apartment, making her shuffle and stagger so the surrounding zombies will mistake her for one of them.
To be honest, it took me a while to get the Romeo and Juliet analogy in Warm Bodies, mainly because for much of the first half, it seems to be following more of a Beauty and the Beast arc, with a heaping dollop of zombie Tarzan learning to communicate with his human Jane while shielding her from the beasts of an undead jungle.
But in my own defense, at least it dawned on me before we got to the balcony scene. Yes, there’s a balcony scene, with Julie hissing by moonlight to R below: “What are you doing here? They’ll kill you!” It was one of those “duh!” moments—R, Julie, Perry instead of Paris, Nora the Nurse; even R’s zombie pal, his Mercutio, if you will, eventually remembers that his name is Marcus. Up to that point, I admit, I had been sneering and sniffing at Warm Bodies, but from there, it seem to get cleverer and sweeter—and more fun—by the minute. (We all know how Romeo and Juliet ends, but, ahem, well, let’s just say it doesn’t pay to be too literal.)
Writer-director Jonathan Levine (who also directed 2011’s shamefully underrated 50/50) manages against all odds to maintain the delicate balance of horror, comedy and romance that marks Isaac Marion’s novel.
So, yes, for me, Warm Bodies is a guilty pleasure. But frankly, it’s high enough on the list that I really don’t feel all that guilty about it.