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Creating a conventional zombie movie is easy. All you need to do is take a group of human survivors from all walks of life, stick them in a closed environment, and a) let them tear themselves apart, b) let the flesh-eating monsters tear them apart, or c) both. But in adapting Isaac Marion’s best-selling novel Warm Bodies writer/director Jonathan Levine has taken any anything-but-conventional approach and the result is one of the most refreshingly creative zombie movies in recent memory.
The movie certainly employs the classic elements of the subgenre, including the undead’s shuffling walk and intense desire for human brains/flesh, but that’s just the base from which Warm Bodies begins. R, the lead character/zombie played by Nicholas Hoult, is a mumbling, trundling creature on the outside, but with the use of rare effective voice-over narration the film is able to explore the inner ennui of the walking dead like never before – not to mention the passion inspired in him when he first meets Julie (Teresa Palmer).
In this film brains aren’t just sustenance for zombies, but they actually allow the creatures to relive the memories of the people they’re eating. There are also two distinct types of zombies-- your standard brain eaters as well as what are called Bonies, who have lost every last shred of their humanity. And did you know that zombies can’t dream? That’s only a fraction of the innovation that Warm Bodies brings to the table.
The trickiest change of all is the introduction of love to the zombie world. It’s a hard sell to say the least, but it’s pulled off with aplomb thanks to strong character development and smart pacing. Because Levine gives us access to R’s mind, the hero is advanced from mindless, cannibalistic cadaver to empathetic lead who we actually want to see find happiness. And on the other side of the relationship we have Julie, who is strong, independent, cute and totally deserving of R’s and our affection. Add in the smart, deliberate pace that lets Julie gets used to her undead companion, and the result is a relationship that’s more solid than most of those between two actual humans.
By its nature of being a zom-rom-com Warm Bodies ranges between wide array of tones, but just like he did with his last feature 50/50, Levine has no trouble navigating it. The central relationship is sweet without being cloying or saccharine; John Malkovich’s General Grigio (who also happens to be Julie’s father) heightens the drama and stakes to exactly where they need to be; and while the film isn’t particularly scary, it does feature its fair share of thrills. And it’s laugh out loud funny to boot. R’s inner-monologue is filled with awkward angst (“This date is not going well. I want to die all over again”), his zombie pal M (Rob Corddry) is loaded with monosyllabic zingers, and you can’t help but laugh out loud when R is getting a quick makeover to look more human and Julie’s friend Nora (Analeigh Tipton) begins to play Roy Orbison's “Oh, Pretty Woman” on her iPod.
As R becomes closer to Julie he starts to become more human again, Levie mirrors this evolution beautifully in his direction. When we first meet R stumbling around the local airport just going about his day to day life the colors are muddled and everything is shaded over with an ugly green tint, but as he begins to develop Levine begins to make things brighter and sharper to reflect the character’s outlook and mindset. While I wouldn’t recommend it – as you would miss all of the funny jokes and story – you could watch Warm Bodies on mute and fully grasp the movie’s development through its use of color alone.
Some audiences may get tripped up by the movie’s slower-than-the-average-comedy pace, but if you allow yourself to invest in the characters and story the movie pays dividends. Warm Bodies is a funny, sweet, romantic, fun ride – what else can you ask for?