Life is a tricky thing.
Wondrous yes but profoundly difficult to navigate at times and that’s if you’re alive and completely aware of who you are and what makes you, you.
R (Nicholas Hoult), who we meet at the start of Warm Bodies, a film written and directed by the talented Jonathan Levine, and based on the novel by Isaac Marion, though is very much dead and struggling to make sense of a world that he regards with equal measures of unexpected optimism and resigned sadness.
Victim of a zombie apocalypse of unknown origin – unknown to him at least; along with its cause, he has forgotten his name and what he used to do, although he wryly notes, in one of the film’s many sweetly humorous observations, that his ever-present hoodie suggests he was long term unemployed – and along with myriad others, doomed it seems to shuffle around the terminals and runways of the airport he calls home, for eternity.
Or until he gives up all hope and becomes one of the fearsomely scary “Boneys”, skeletal beings who have lost any semblance of humanity and roam in impressively coordinated wolf-like packs around the abandoned detritus of civilisation.
But R, played with endearing charm by Hoult, whose mantra “Don’t be creepy” and love of collecting vinyl LPs (because it’s “more … alive”) speaks to a soul that’s not as dead as humanity’s survivors, secure behind the mighty ramparts of a walled-off section of the city, believe it to be.
And that includes Julie Grigio (Teresa Palmer), daughter of the survivors’ leader Colonel Grigio (in am almost throwaway cameo by John Malkovich), who though sceptical and dismissive of much of what her father has done to keep people “safe” – Julie questions just what it is he’s achieved if all they do is cower behind the walls inbetween risky raiding parties to get food and medicine waiting out their years in a “concrete shell” – has no reason to doubt that the zombie hordes are beyond redemption.
That is until she meets R during a raiding party gone wrong.
After devouring her boyfriend Perry (Dave Franco) and ingesting all his memories, which includes his love of Julie, via his brain (the consumption of which acts like a drug) – in comparing himself to the Boneys, he admits they all eat human flesh but at least he feels “conflicted about it” – he unaccountably smears Julie with zombie blood and rescues her from his fellow ravenous raiders which includes his best friend M/Marcus (US comedian Rob Corddry) as Julie’s best friend Nora (the comically gifted Analeigh Tipton) looks on tearfully from her hiding place.
Julie is understandably terrified, and then mystified by R’s actions which don’t match those of any zombie she has ever come across.
He likes listening to Dylan on the record player in the parked airliner he calls home, collects trinkets on his regular excursions to the city to feed – including on this occasion Julie who he insists must hang around for a “few days” till the other zombies forget she’s there, which is less about kidnapping her than it is about keeping an attractive girl he’s smitten with around as long as he can – and wants to hang onto his humanity for as long as he can.
As Julie observes he is trying harder to be human that many of the survivors she knows.
Holed away in the relative safety of the plane, R and Julie have a few days to get to know each other and spend the time playing records, talking – to be honest Julie more than R who struggles to get beyond single word answers, at least initially – and yes, bonding, much to Julie’s astonishment, and R’s unmitigated joy (something zombies are supposed to possess being, you know, dead).
It’s a bond that holds fast even when R admits he was the one who ate Perry, presenting the ex-boyfriend’s gold watch as proof of his much-regretted misdeed, and when Julie is forced to confront her father as evidence emerges that her growing unorthodox love for R, which is returned with a fervency the undead teenager didn’t realise was his to experience, is transforming not just R but all his fellow un-Boneyed zombies.
While the narrative is a little thin on the ground at times, and downright cheesy at others, and the character development, save for R and Julie whose respective transformations are brought to life with all the nuance and believability you could ask for, a tad too convenient – Colonel Grigio’s change from unflinchingly zombie-phobic military badass to touchy-feely initiator of zombie-human rapprochement is miraculously fast, Warm Bodies is at heart a thoroughly engaging, emotionally-satisfying rom-zom-com that is as funny as it is touching.
That is manages to straddle creepy, humourous, touching, charming and sweet without coming across as a weird melange of Day of the Dead, You’ve Got Mail, and The Care Bear Movie, is testament to Levine’s perfectly nuanced, insightful script, and standout performances by Hoult, Palmer, and Tipton, who elevates the usually-forgettable supportive buddy role to something far more substantial.
Warm Bodies successfully manages to be both a Romeo and Juliet-esque love story – without the tragic death at the end, which let’s face it isn’t necessary since R is, at least till the love between Julie and him blossoms, is dead already – and a pithy commentary on the human condition (the comparison between the shuffling airport zombies and a pre-apocalypse humanity wandering disconnected through the terminals is priceless), without once sacrificing its winning sense of humour, and charm.
And in the process, this movie, which could have so easily been a comical mishmash of all sorts of half-baked genres in lesser hands, reminds us that life may be a tricky business but is well worth pursuing, no matter the odds.