Warm Bodies (United States, 2013)

January 31, 2013
A movie review by James Berardinelli
Warm Bodies Poster

As if it wasn't bad enough that Twilight defanged vampires, turning them into whiny emo Harlequin romance heroes, now Warm Bodies has done something similar for zombies. Granted, that latter evisceration is more challenging than the former. After all, sexuality has often been associated with vampires. But zombies? Mindless, shuffling corpses that reek of rotting flesh? Warm Bodies has found a way to make them sexy. One might be willing to acknowledge the Herculean achievement if the movie wasn't so hopelessly mediocre. It wants to be funny, charming, scary, and dramatic. It ends up being a little of each but not successful as any one.

This is Dawn of the Dead meets Romeo & Juliet with an Army of Darkness sensibility. Admittedly, that sounds like a great premise and I'm sure it got everyone all lathered up in the pitch meeting. But the tone is all over the place, the script is vacillates between witty and brain-dead, and the PG-13 sensibility neuters anything resembling edginess. At least the lead actors are capable and engaging and there's some nice chemistry in place. But Warm Bodies left me more frustrated than satisfied because the film is content to underwhelm with fertile material and rarely attempts anything interesting.

Perhaps the problem lies with the source material. I don't know; I haven't read Isaac Marion's novel. But either Marion wove a compelling tale that Jonathan Levine's screenplay turned into mush or Levine has faithfully adapted something that was mush in the first place. I have liked some of Levine's past work as a writer and director ( 50/50, The Wackness), so this counts as a disappointment. It's going for a mainstream, primarily female audience whose knowledge of horror comes through YA material. As a friend put it after the screening, this is "a chick flick zombie movie."

The movie opens with R (Nicholas Hoult), a zombie, shuffling around the post-apocalyptic ruins of a city. It might be a scene out of a Romero movie except that R's voiceover is filled with pithy, satirical observations. Enter Julie (Teresa Palmer), one member of a band of human scouts sent into zombie territory to retrieve medical supplies. During the encounter, R chows down on the brain of Julie's boyfriend, Perry (Dave Franco, brother of James), and absorbs his memories of their relationship. Somehow, this jump-starts R's transformation back to the land of the living. His heart begins to beat. He starts speaking words. And he protects Julie from the other zombies. Thus begins a star-crossed romance that leads not only to a balcony scene (yes - there really is one) but to a big confrontation between undead and humans with the in-between zombies choosing sides.

To be fair to Warm Bodies, there are some funny scenes and the romantic elements are surprisingly well handled for something that, on paper, sounds cringe-worthy. A plot device easily allows concerns about necrophilia to be sidestepped. The story suffers, however, from a lack of ambition. It's not overly concerned about the big picture beyond how it impacts the love story. The whole thing feels more like a prologue to a longer, more compelling allegory about humanity and racism. It would be fascinating to revisit this society in fifteen years to see how it has evolved - a lot more fascinating that exploring its nascent beginnings here.

Warm Bodies opens itself up for such criticisms because it gives out smoke signals that it wants to be more than just another horror-comedy. The problem is, aside from throwing out occasional weighty ideas as parts of minor subplots, it doesn't achieve much that's likely to impress with its heft, insight, or intelligence. The comedy isn't plentiful enough for the movie to take refuge in its jokes and the horror is lame. If there's one brand of monster that simply can't be done PG-13, it's zombies.

The leads are likeable enough. The application of Romeo & Juliet is effective because few basic romantic templates are more likely to get us rooting for hopeless love. Nicholas Hoult, whose career has taken him from About a Boy to X-Men: First Class to this, does a nice job with the transition from shambling zombie to a socially awkward guy who bears a passing resemblance to a young Tom Cruise. Teresa Palmer is attractive and feisty but her character does just enough stupid things to suggest she might be at home in a more traditional horror movie. Oh, and John Malkovich shows up to deliver a few lines, scowl, and pick up his paycheck.

Perhaps the most depressing thing about the whole Twilight phenomenon is the impact it has had on horror in general. It may no longer be possible to tell a story about undead without grafting on some sort of romance and reducing the monster into a misunderstood societal outcast. Warm Bodies is the product of Summit Entertainment, the distributor of the Twilight movies, and there's little doubt the hope is to attract a fraction of Stephenie Meyer's core audience. The film has its charms but the trailer suggests a level of cleverness and inventiveness that isn't evident in the full production.

Warm Bodies (United States, 2013)

Run Time: 1:38
U.S. Release Date: 2013-02-01
MPAA Rating: "PG-13" (Violence, Profanity)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1