For an unconventional love story set during the zombie apocalypse, Warm Bodies is frustratingly straightforward. Isaac Marion’s novel is inventive, to be sure. (Tor.com recommended it as one of 15 Essential Zombie Reads.) But at some point while adapting this forbidden-love tale to film, the producers diluted some of the story’s impact. If you’re looking for a universal metaphor for the zombie apocalypse, adjust your expectations. Warm Bodies is a solid, if simplified, interpretation of what humanity means when our hearts stop beating and then start up again.
Right off the bat, Warm Bodies takes a unique stance by narrating the entire movie from the zombie’s point of view. Not just that, but mostly through voiceover! As R, the shuffling, sweatshirt-clad loverboy, Nicholas Hoult is remarkable. He makes us giggle and coo at his clumsy attempts at courting human survivor Julie Grigio (Teresa Palmer). We’re charmed by his unusual—and never explained—tendencies to latch on to some of his remaining humanity, through the tchotchkes he’s set up in a sort of shrine in his abandoned 747 home and the literal soundtrack to his life he arranges via hoarded vinyl.
You have to buy into Warm Bodies’ conceit immediately: Despite having nommed on humans for years, when R meets Julie his heart starts beating again. While holding her captive, a la Beauty and the Beast, they get to know each other. His grunts turn into actual words, and blood starts rushing to all places in his body, if you catch my drift. In short, he starts becoming human again.
And he’s not the only one. R’s reaction to Julie’s presence inspires the other undead—note that R rarely refers to himself and his cohorts as “zombies”—to regain shreds of their own humanity. Is it psychological? Is it chemical? No, it’s love.
Like its literary predecessor Romeo & Juliet, to which it throws plenty of allusions, Warm Bodies doesn’t expend much energy in convincing us that these two young’uns have fallen in love in an astonishingly short time. I found myself thinking that it was a shame that we jump straight from R gnawing on Julie’s boyfriend’s brains to falling for this hard-edged blonde. A more interesting take might have been Julie developing a Stockholm Syndrome-like attachment to her would-be captor—or her playing him, Katniss Everdeen-style, and encouraging his crush in order to stay alive.
That said, the supporting characters are fantastic. Casting comedian Rob Corddry as R’s closest thing to a best friend M was an inspired move: He plays various moments as sad, awkward, and truly creepy. You completely buy him as an average guy who until now has never had to truly man up. John Malkovich is sadly underutilized here; we see him mostly through Julie’s resentful memories of her father. There’s more to their relationship, though all we get is her mother’s death-by-zombie as a shorthand to their shared hard-heartedness.
What helps win us over is the movie’s sharp, sarcastic, tender tone. Most of this is thanks to Hoult’s narration, with wry observations about why he got turned into a zombie in an airport and self-recriminations like “Don’t be creepy!” We never forget the human brain that weakly sparks neurons inside his pale, veiny head.
But it’s everyone, really: There’s a self-awareness of other zombie narratives and how this film’s undead challenge those notions of what it means to be a corpse. We also can’t forget the film’s real—and really scary—antagonists, the Bonies. Zombies who lose the will to shamble on and start shredding their own skin, they’re terrifying for their primal shrieks and the ability to run after warm fleshy humans. Their constant, hovering presence injects the necessary amount of suspense into the movie.
I find myself acting as introspective as R, questioning my own reactions to the film. Maybe it’s asking too much for a zombie story to be incredibly nuanced. Even more so than the vampire genre, zombie apocalypse tales seem compelled by the need to set themselves apart from the other installments—a clever source of the infection, a radical take on how humanity survives, the never-before-considered metaphor for our modern society.
With that much pressure to be unique, of course no one zombie story is going to embody everything we want. That Warm Bodies can get its audiences to buy into the transformative power of love is a triumph. Maybe we shouldn’t demand anything more than that.
Photos: Jonathan Wenk and Jan Thijs, Summit Entertainment
Natalie Zutter is a playwright, foodie, and the co-creator of Leftovers, a webcomic about food trucks in the zombie apocalypse. Her writing has appeared on Ology and Crushable, where she discusses celebrity culture alongside internet memes (or vice versa). Weekly you can find her commenting on pop culture on KoPoint’s podcast AFK On Air, calling in to the Hunger Games Fireside Chat podcast, reviewing new releases at Movie Mezzanine, and on Twitter.