When two young lovers meet for the first time in most romantic comedies, they typically bump into one another in some cutesy, contrived way. I’m thinking of Tom Hanks slamming into Elisabeth Perkins in Big, Jon Stewart saving Gillian Anderson from a falling bookcase in Playing By Heart or, possibly the most ridiculous, Matthew McConaughey rescuing Jennifer Lopez from an out of control dumpster in The Wedding Planner. Most of these scenes are pretty forced and actually kind of violent.
But here’s one I haven’t seen before: an armed freedom fighter (Teresa Palmer) is blasting away at zombies in a post-apocalyptic world, when one of them, later identified as “R” (and played by Nicholas Hoult), falls madly in love with her. There’s just something about the way she brandished that shotgun and blew the heads off his zombie buddies that had him at hello.
This isn’t the first zombie love story, as fans of bad cinema may recall the high school romance, My Boyfriend’s Back, from 20 years back. Warm Bodies is being released by Summit Entertainment, the studio that gave us the Twilight movies, which can’t be a coincidence, as this is another girl-meets-ghoul tale. Yet, while the Twilight films won’t age well over time, due to how absurdly serious they take themselves, Warm Bodies is a unique horror/comedy and a good one at that.
The opening scenes establish a world where humans are at war with the undead, as we hear R’s narration while he literally shuffles his way through his “life.” Immediately, we see that R is unlike most zombies, as his inner thoughts are hopeful, observant and hilarious but he’s stuck in a body that only allows for grunting zombie-speak, slow movement and bloodlust. He’s already longing to change before he meets the love of his life, whose father, played by John Malkovich, leads the endless war against hordes of zombies.
Warm Bodies is refreshingly different and uniquely cheerful for a zombie movie, though it aims to be this year’s Zombieland and isn’t in the same caliber. Whereas other zombie comedies, like the woefully little seen Fido, create a careful balance of scares and laughs, this one doesn’t juggle contrasting tones as much as abruptly change moods every fifteen minutes. Since the story constantly alternates being a love story, horror satire, futuristic cautionary tale and suspense thriller, it’s never as frightening or funny as it could be. It works better than it should, because the performances and direction are strong, but it falls short of the classic status it aims for.
Hoult gives a witty physical performance that always puts the audience in his corner, even when the character is quite disgusting and Palmer is appealingly plucky as the object of his affection. Despite the PG-13 rating, this can get quite gruesome, making it an iffy date movie. While efficiently laugh and gasp inducing, it has nothing on Ghostbusters or An American Werewolf in London, still the modern day kings of mixing hip humor with terrifying imagery.
As directed by Jonathan Levine, who recently made the great 50/50, the effects and landscape of the zombie-infected war zone are vivid and expertly produced. In fact, this may wind up being a better zombies vs. the world movie than Brad Pitt’s upcoming World War Z.
The soundtrack is especially strong, with great tunes by Jimmy Cliff and Bob Dylan perfectly utilized. The climactic scenes fall short as action sequences but still build to a conclusion that’s quite surprising for this genre. I’m honestly sick of zombie movies, but this is worth seeing just because it’s so amusingly different.
★ ★ ★
Rated PG-13 / 97 Min.