What goes through a zombie’s head? Besides bullets, I mean. Stumbling around, on the prowl for human flesh, do zombies think? Do they have hopes, joys and regrets? Put another way — do zombies dream of undead sheep?
The zombie star of “Warm Bodies” does not dream or sleep. Not yet. When we meet him he’s sequestered in an airport with all the other victims of an apocalyptic plague, moaning, roaming and nameless, discerned only by his ratty red hoodie and sharp, inquisitive eyes. His putrefied vocal chords barely manage two syllables at a time. But he talks to us, not with his mouth but that most primal talk box, the mind. This is “Warm Bodies’” secret weapon, the key to its low-key charm that makes it 2013’s first excellent film. We’re drawn to “R” (as we come to know him) by his frank discussions of zombie-hood, presented in voice-over and rife with wit. It disarms us like the best comedy, inviting empathy where we’re compelled to judge.
For “R,” played by Nicholas Hoult, being a zombie is not a fate beyond comprehension — I have no mouth and must scream and all that rot — but the loneliness of living life looped to infinity. His concerns are our concerns: I’m too pale; I should stop slouching; this hoodie’s too ratty; why can’t I say what I mean? He has few friends and none he can genuinely talk with. His only sanctuary is an airplane where he keeps a record collection for his more wistful moods, when John Waite’s “Missing You” rings with truth greater than its hokey 80s trappings.
On the other side of the wasteland, the surviving humans have blocked out doomsday with looming fortress walls. The youngest are sent to scavenge for food, including Julie, played by Teresa Palmer, and her estranged boyfriend Perry, “21 Jump Street”’s Dave Franco hamming it up as ice king. They bump into the zombies on a brain excursion and one glance from “R” to Julie confirms his fantasies, hinted at in song but now given living, breathing form.
You may have noticed the letter motif. “R”(omeo) “J”ulie(t); and “R”’s best friend is a zombie named “M”(ercutio) — undervalued comedian Rob Corddry, who like Mercutio has all the best lines. There’s nothing clever about this. Every romance pays homage to “Romeo and Juliet” at some point, and none so avidly as the “star-crossed lovers” genre. What separates “Warm Bodies” is the delight with which it embraces the conceit and very clichés.
Make no mistake, “Warm Bodies” is schmaltz, pure chick-flick date movie schmaltz, zombies and all. The film lingers on “R” and Julie after he hides her at the airport, reluctant to lose his only human companion. Here, they share a flurry of musical montages and cuddly chemistry, a source of “Aww” for many and “Come on!”s for the emotionally diabetic. Conflict is reduced to road bumps along the greater love-story itinerary: “R” kills and eats Perry right before meeting Julie, but the film employs his death less as a straining device and more to reflect on how we define “dead” versus “alive.”
These zombies, you see, accrue memories from the brains they eat. Far from ending a human life, “R” integrates Perry’s with his own, learning his affection while excising both their apathy. With Perry’s help, Julie exhumes his latent humanity, represented in the crudest terms by his heart glowing (“And some say his heart grew 3 (or 6) sizes that day…”), and their love ignites a zombie revolution. The zombies cease to be the Other, that feared subhuman creation of pseudo-Marxist criticism. Now, they’re the fragile middle ground between human cruelty and utter nihilism — represented here by “Bonies,” zombies who’ve given up their flesh for blind, destructive rage. They’re the film’s real villains, a cautionary tale to humans and zombies alike, reminding them of the fate worse than death: heartlessness.
Call it “cheesy,” if you must; I won’t deny the film its flaws. John Malkovich, as Julie’s father and the human colony mastermind, is Montague and Capulet rolled into one, a convenient obstacle for the heroes’ love but not much else. Palmer’s acting lacks Hoult’s sincerity, and her backstory, replete with tragedies like a dead mother, plays it strictly by numbers. There’s no Deep Stuff™ to be had here, the hallmark of “serious” film.
And yet there doesn’t have to be. “Warm Bodies,” like last year’s “Cloud Atlas,” teaches valuable moral lessons about the most basic human needs, for love, forgiveness and friendship. It may amount to nothing more than silly love songs, but as McCartney said, what’s wrong with that? It’s more earnest and universal than those devious romances — “Twilight”, “50 Shades of Grey” — whose characters are blank slates, too flat for even caricature, and it speaks more truthfully than they do to real experience.
Director Jonathan Levine has built a career off of humanizing the dehumanized: a cancer patient in “50/50” and teenage drug dealers in “The Wackness.” This year it’s zombies, and they have never been more endearing, hilarious or sublime than in “Warm Bodies.”