Of all the zombie movies so far, few (if any) have told their stories from the zombies’ point of view. The undead can’t talk, think, or learn, and a protagonist generally needs to be able to do at least two of those things.
“Warm Bodies” takes a chance and switches things up, resulting in an unexpectedly kind and funny zombie-teen-romance — a genuinely new twist on a familiar scenario. Adapted from Isaac Marion’s novel and directed by Jonathan Levine (“50/50,” “The Wackness”), the film is narrated by R (Nicholas Hoult), a shuffling member of the undead who can’t speak or remember his former life, but whose mind is sharp enough that he can express his thoughts to us. “Am I the only one who wants more than this?” he asks himself as he trudges through the abandoned airport that is now home to a legion of flesh-eaters. That’s right: R is a zombie with hopes and dreams.
Nearby, in what’s left of the city, survivors of the zombie apocalypse work on fortifying the wall that separates them from the undead. Their leader, the militaristic Grigio (John Malkovich), sends his daughter, Julie (Teresa Palmer), her boyfriend (Dave Franco), and a band of trained zombie-fighters out on a supply run, during which they encounter R and a horde of his colleagues. But when R sees Julie, his instinct isn’t to tear her flesh and devour her brain. His instinct is to fall in love.
Thus begins a story with underscored parallels to “Romeo & Juliet” (note the names), as well as to tales like “King Kong” and “Beauty and the Beast,” with R starting to evolve and become more human while Julie gradually accepts that he doesn’t want to eat her. He’s different from the other zombies! Of course, that’s what you’d expect a smitten girl to tell her disapproving father, isn’t it?
Rather than go all-out to be a romance, a comedy, or a satire, the film keeps an even, low-key attitude, with affable performances by Hoult and Palmer, and by Analeigh Tipton as Julie’s best friend and Rob Corddry as R’s zombie buddy. It’s often funny but seldom hilarious; it has a romance but isn’t mushy; it makes a few jokes about modern society (we’re all “zombies” looking at our phones all the time, etc.) but doesn’t emphasize them. It might have been a stronger film if Levine had chosen one tone and run with it, but the jack-of-all-trades-master-of-none style works for me here.
Certain weaknesses in the story are harder to overlook. It’s established that when a zombie eats your brain, he gets some of your memories with it — an interesting idea that the movie barely makes use of. The “Bonies,” which are understood to be zombies so far gone they no longer even resemble humans, are capable of planning and scheming (making them smarter than regular zombies, not more primitive).
But a strong ending can hide a multitude of sins, and “Warm Bodies” is perhaps the only zombie movie I’ve seen that sent me out of the theater feeling happy, even uplifted. Yes, yes, the allegories about being able to change and the power of love to make us better people are obvious — but so what? Seeing a zombie film that’s so upbeat and nice is … well, nice.
B (1 hr., 37 min.; )