In retrospect, I’m not sure why I was so excited about Warm Bodies. It seemed to have potential, not so much for its romantic-comedy take on the zombie flick as for its idea of the dead being “infected” by emotion and slowly brought back to life. It helped that the film is directed by Jonathan Levine, who actually has legitimate horror cred in the form of his well-received 2006 slasher film, All the Boys Love Mandy Lane.
Regardless, though, it took me an embarrassingly long time to key into the fact that Warm Bodies is essentially just an inevitable variation on the post-Twilight girl-loves-monster formula. It might have fresh(ish) ideas aplenty, but it never seems to figure out what to do with them. Which is not to say the movie is without its charms—actually, charm is all it has going for it, and it has barely enough to get by on.
The story is a retread of Romeo and Juliet, though it’s decidedly less suicide-y. The always-appealing Nicholas Hoult (About a Boy, A Single Man) stars as R, an emo zombie who doesn’t remember anything about his former life but does just fine maintaining his vinyl collection. R lives at an airport with his skinbag friends, occasionally venturing beyond the tarmac to find someone to eat. The rules of R’s post-apocalyptic world are simple: zombies are freaked out by humans, humans are freaked out by zombies, and everyone is freaked out by “bonies,” skeletal zombies who have given up the last vestiges of their humanity.
R soon falls for Julie (Teresa Palmer), a pretty and stunningly bland living girl whose father (John Malkovich) heads the local zombie-fighting army. Since he’s already killed and eaten Julie’s boyfriend (Dave Franco), R doesn’t have to worry about rivals for her affection; his only problem is that he’s, you know, a rotting, flesh-eating corpse. Julie isn’t shallow, though, and she can totally see past that. The two begin an awkward courtship that involves dancing to R’s records, going for joyrides in abandoned sports cars, and trying on lots of sunglasses. (R is a hoarder, though thankfully without the requisite fondness for dead cats.) And just in case you don’t get the countless Romeo and Juliet allusions, there’s a balcony scene that sends the movie lurching into its sweet, if 100 percent predictable, third act.
Warm Bodies’ most valuable creative capital isn’t the love story itself, though, but the effects it has on R’s undead brethren, who slowly start to come back to life. It’s a great idea, but one that is never really developed—or explained—in any satisfying way.
And that’s where the movie runs out of gas. It has a chance to do something truly inventive, but it settles for worn-out clichés at practically every turn. It also displays some remarkably shoddy world-building in the process, but maybe that’s just a nerd complaint. I can accept some pretty outrageous stuff in a story but I need it to make sense in the context of its own universe, and Warm Bodies fails miserably on that count. The film’s shamblers are slow, clumsy, and stupid while they’re relatively fresh, but become superpowered monsters capable of carefully coordinated military-style maneuvers once they’ve deteriorated beyond recognition and lost all muscle mass. As complaints go, that one might sound a bit too Sheldon Cooper-ish for comfort, but it’s indicative of the kind of slapdash screenwriting that brings Warm Bodies down every time it tries to rise.
I haven’t read the book upon which the film is based, so I don’t how much of that laziness can be blamed on director/screenwriter Levine and how much of it he inherited from novelist Isaac Marion, but the end result is the same. Warm Bodies is sweet and fairly charming, and to a certain extent—particularly for its target teen audience—that’s enough. The characters are mostly likeable and the performances are good, with Rob Corddry and Analeigh Tipton standing out as R and Julie’s supportive best friends. But it’s almost dogged in its refusal to stand out from the throngs of teen flicks it imitates. Adding rotters to the equation is a clever idea, but Warm Bodies ultimately left me a bit—well, you know.