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Warm Bodies (2013)
The problem with zombie movies has always been zombies. They’re boring. They shuffle and groan and travel in packs and eat flesh or brains and get killed by shotguns. Yay. They’re most interesting as metaphors, as in “Shaun of the Dead,” for shuffling, brain-dead commuters working deadening, soul-destroying jobs. Us. We’re zombies before the flesh-eating even begins.
We get a few moments like that in “Warm Bodies,” the new zombie flick written and directed by Jonathan Levine (“50/50”). Our main character, “R” (Nicholas Hoult), is a zombie who shuffles around an abandoned airport with dozens of other zombies. He’s friends with no one except “M” (Rob Cordrey), with whom he shares the usual zombie grunts and grrs at the airport bar before one of them is able to annunciate a word. Generally it’s: “hungry.” And off they go, in search of brains.
But “R” misses days of communication and flashes back to what it was like before. What was it like before? When people could express themselves, and communicate their feelings, and enjoy each other’s company? Flash to footage of busy people walking around the airport, looking at their cellphones, and texting. Zombie nation had already begun.
Holden Caulfield is dead, but in a good way
“R” is so named because that’s all of his name he can remember. He’s also “R” because that’s the sound they make, isn’t it? Arrrr. He’s “R” for another reason as well. We’ll get to that.
If “R” can’t communicate with others he certainly can with us, and the opening voiceover gives us the first of many laugh-out loud moments:
What am I doing with my life? So pale, I should get out more, I should eat better. My posture is terrible. I should stand up straighter. People would respect me more if I stood up straighter.
What’s wrong with me? I just want to connect. Why can’t I connect with people?
Oh right. Because I’m dead.
He’s the angsty, smart, teen zombie. He’s also retro. He hangs out on an old jumbo jet on the runway where he listens to LPs on a turntable because he likes the sound better than CDs or MP3s. It’s mostly ‘80s music: “Missing You” by John Waits, “Patience” by Guns N’ Roses, “Hungry Heart” by Springsteen. He yearns. Then he falls in love.
Out in search of food, they come across a group of well-armed teens stockpiling medicines for the nearby walled city, protected by Grigio (John Malkovich). That’s where R spots Grigio’s daughter, Julie (Teresa Palmer), a bit of a Kristen Stewart lookalike, wearing tight jeans and an army jacket, and falls in love. It helps, too, that he eats the brains of Perry, her boyfriend (Dave Franco of “21 Jump Street”). Zombies don’t sleep, they don’t remember much, but if you eat the brains of another you absorb their memories. That’s what he does with Perry. After that, he protects Julie. He rubs zombie goo on her face to hide her scent from the others; then he takes her back to his place. He plays her records. They begin to bond. And he begins to come back to life. Literally. We get a heartbeat.
Later, when the other zombies see them holding hands, they begin to get heartbeats, too. Zombification, it turns out, isn’t an endgame, which has always been another problem with zombie movies. Here, it’s a kind of purgatory where you have three options: you can become truly dead (shotgun to the head); you can become a “bonie,” a zombie which has ripped off its own flesh, leaving only the superfast skeleton beneath; or you can return to life. You just need to care. You just need to feel a little love. 1980s music? Screw that. The message is all 1960s: What the world needs now…
R and Julie are obviously a humorous update of Edward and Bella from “Twilight”: a love story between a human girl and a classic horror monster. (I’m waiting on the Frankenstein version.) But they’re also, more meaningfully, a modern-day, or futuristic, Romeo and Juliet. They’re star-crossed lovers. Her dad doesn’t like him; his friends want to eat her brains. You know how it is. At one point we even get a balcony scene. That’s why the “R” as well. For Romeo. Or Ralph. Because what’s in a name?
I expected nothing from “Warm Bodies” but it’s witty and charming throughout. And if it moves slowly at times, well, these are zombies.
February 3, 2013
© 2013 Erik Lundegaard