Zombies are in. Slow zombies, fast zombies, historical zombies, futuristic zombies, Nazi zombies, stripper zombies — you name an adjective, there’s probably been a zombie version of it in film, television, and/or video games. As a result, it’s starting to seem like there isn’t anywhere new for artists to go with the cannibalistic, reanimated creatures, that they’ve reached a point of media saturation. So the fact that Jonathan Levine’s “Warm Bodies,” a zombie-romantic-comedy (yes) adapted from a popular novel by Isaac Marion, feels like a new creation and not a rehash makes the film worthy of our attention.
Many will refer to the film’s core gaps in narrative logic as flaws, as the accepted policy in the zombie genre is for a filmmaker to create a universe with clear rules for zombie behavior and stick to them. But co-writer/director Levine’s rejection of such constraints is part of what makes “Warm Bodies” so enjoyably original. Allow me to explain with an example. One of the unique things about the film is that it is told from the perspective of a zombie, Nicholas Hoult’s R, with frequent voiceover narration. But within the context of the movie’s story, which finds R slowly regaining his humanity as he recalls various human emotions (another unique idea), this voiceover content makes very little logical sense, as R’s confessions to the audience come across as fully “alive” from the start. He’s a typical fast-talking, self-reflective narrator, even though he initially can’t really communicate otherwise. If R’s narration were to have made any logical sense, it would had to have begun as incoherent babbling—the stuff of an experimental art film—and gradually become more intelligible. But this style would never have flown in a mainstream production like “Warm Bodies.” So what does Levine do? He sacrifices narrative logic in order to preserve the unorthodox POV, because originality is more engaging than the pretense of realism in a silly adventure like this.
The romance in the film similarly doesn’t hold up to scrutiny, but as with the zombie POV, it’s engaging because it’s different (the only other zombie-human love story on the books is 1993’s little-seen “My Boyfriend’s Back”). We understand why R would fall for Julie (Teresa Palmer)—when he eats her boyfriend’s brains before encountering her, he inherits the young man’s memories—but why she would eventually grow to like him remains obscure. Perhaps it’s because she wants to rebel against her father (John Malkovich), the overprotective military leader in charge of warding off zombies from human territory, or perhaps it’s just one of those attitudes that should be chalked up to movie magic. Either way, Julie’s lack of clear motivation and R’s lifeless zombie presence make the chemistry between them non-existent, and thus the film is a romance in ambition only. But watching Levine try to cultivate a love story between the two characters, despite its practical impossibility, is certainly more interesting than your typical run-shoot-strategize zombie action. It helps, too, that while actors Hoult and Palmer may not be perfect for each other, they’re each perfectly charming by themselves, he a lovable buffoon and she a lovely girl-next-door.
Some may charge that I’m giving “Warm Bodies” more credit for its conceptual originality than I would an equally fresh film belonging to a different genre for which my expectations are higher. This is an accurate assessment, as I’m willing to forgive the limitations of Levine’s execution in large part because I’m stacking “Warm Bodies” against other recent zombie pictures like those in the “Resident Evil” and “Quarantine” franchises. By all means, if you’re open to seeing anything that’s playing at the multiplex, pick “Zero Dark Thirty” or “Amour” or even the wildly entertaining Arnold Schwarzenegger vehicle “The Last Stand” instead. But if it’s zombies you want, “Warm Bodies” is your movie, the rare entry in this genre will show you things you haven’t seen before.