The new film “Warm Bodies,” about a compassionate zombie who has a crush on a living girl, might sound familiar if you are the kind of person who remembers obscure movies from 20 years ago. “Warm Bodies” belongs to the same genre as 1993′s “My Boyfriend’s Back”: the young adult zombie-human romantic comedy, or YAZHRC’s, as Variety calls them whenever they write about them. Which isn’t often. Because I think “My Boyfriend’s Back” and “Warm Bodies” are the only ones.
Which is strange in and of itself. There have been plenty of movies where someone comes back from the dead for romantic purposes, but it’s almost always as an angel or ghost or a reincarnated or resurrection person, not a flesh-eating, undead abomination. And goodness knows we’ve seen enough films about relationships between humans and other monsters (vampires, werewolves, Nazis, Katherine Heigl, etc.), just not zombies.
What does our reluctance to depict human-zombie romances say about us as a society? Does it indicate some remaining vestiges of puritanical narrow-mindedness? Are zombies the last minority group against which it is still considered OK to discriminate?
No, stupid. It’s because zombies can’t think or talk, and it’s hard to make a romantic comedy in which one of the central characters is a grunting, decaying monster, “50 First Dates” notwithstanding. It’s so hard, in fact, that filmmakers only attempt it once every 20 years.
“My Boyfriend’s Back” is notable for several reasons, none of them pertaining to the movie itself, which is kind of bad. Did you know it was directed by Bob Balaban, a highly recognizable character actor who rarely steps behind the camera? (Even if you don’t know the name, you’d know the face.) See? That’s noteworthy! Also, it has the very first movie appearances by Matthew Fox and Matthew McConaughey (playing “Guy #2″), and an early performance by Philip Seymour Hoffman, back when he and Jack Black were talking about becoming the same person.
In “My Boyfriend’s Back,” the way they get around the fact that zombies are disgusting and inarticulate is by having this particular zombie not be either of those things. Johnny (Andrew Lowery), a high school putz who’s been in love with a girl named Missy (Traci Lind) since kindergarten, took a bullet for her during a robbery at the convenience store where she works, and subsequently rose from the dead. For no reason, either. There’s no general zombie apocalypse going on, nor was he revived by way of voodoo or sorcery. The cemetery’s gravedigger/exposition-provider knows the rules of zombiehood, so this sort of thing must come up at least occasionally, but it definitely is not commonplace.
Johnny’s body is gradually decomposing, and he craves human flesh, but otherwise he looks and acts no differently from the way he did when he was alive. The movie’s central joke is that nobody in town treats Johnny’s reappearance with anything more than mild surprise. “Just because you’re dead doesn’t mean you can come waltzing in here whenever you like!” his teacher says when he’s tardy to class. There are many, many, many, many, many lines of that nature in the dialogue.
Missy thinks it was sweet of Johnny to die for her. Girls are suckers for stuff like that. (Discussion question: Since dying is an excellent reason not to go to school anymore, doesn’t Johnny’s decision to go anyway indicate that he’s a dweeb who doesn’t deserve a girlfriend?) She goes on some dates with him, despite protestations from her preppy boyfriend (that’s Matthew Fox), who is anti-zombie — and who, let’s be honest, may have a legitimate beef with her for dating other guys while she’s supposedly his girlfriend. The fact that she’s two-timing him with a zombie is just salt in the wound. Most of the town is prejudiced in that way. That’s the movie’s other joke: Ha ha, it is an allegory for racism or whatever! We’ve all learned a lot today, watching “My Boyfriend’s Back.”
You might have noticed that “My Boyfriend’s Back” is a bad title because the person who comes back is not her boyfriend. “The Guy Who Had a Crush on Me for 12 Years and Never Said Anything’s Back” is more accurate, but less eloquent. Another reason “My Boyfriend’s Back” is a bad title is that the popular ’60s song by that name does not appear in the movie. This is unconscionable, and it is probably why the movie failed at the box office (besides opening the same day as “The Fugitive” and not being very good).
“Warm Bodies” has a few things in common with its predecessor. Both films are narrated by their male zombie leads, who are fixated on girls with boyfriends. Both have resolutions to their central problem — how can a living girl and an undead boy find happiness together? — that could be considered cop-outs. Neither film features the song “My Boyfriend’s Back.” And so forth.
But “Warm Bodies” is significantly better, and the zombie in it (played by Nicholas Hoult) is more traditional, the kind who was bitten by another zombie and now shuffles around eating live people and moaning — you know, like zombies are supposed to. He can’t talk, but he can still think, sort of, which is how we get his narration. He’s one of thousands of undead in a post-apocalyptic scenario similar to those in other zombie movies, and the object of his affection is a girl he didn’t know in his previous life. She’s the daughter of John Malkovich, which you’d think would be enough to frighten off any potential suitor, zombie or otherwise.
I’ll leave it for you to discover how the movie deals with the thorny problem of two people being in love even though one of their bodies is decaying. (For more on that topic, see “Amour.”) “Warm Bodies” deserves credit for finding new twists on the reliable old zombie formula. It’s probably enough to tide us over until someone else is sufficiently brave to attempt a young adult zombie-human romantic comedy, in 2033, unless the actual zombie apocalypse happens first.