Zombies are terrible characters. That’s not to say there haven’t been plenty of good movies featuring zombies like “28 Days Later,” “Shaun of the Dead,” “Zombieland,” and the George A. Romero classics. In those films, however, it was the human characters and their pursuit to endure the zombie apocalypse that kept the audience invested. Unlike vampires or werewolves, zombies have never been blessed with interesting back-stories, individuality, or moral dilemmas. Last summer’s “Chernobyl Diaries” left me asking why couldn’t there be a movie about a mutant/zombie who’s intelligent with character traits and motivation. Jonathan Levine, who previously made the wonderful “50/50,” responds to my question in “Warm Bodies.”
In this adaptation of the acclaimed novel by Isaac Marlon, we finally delve into the innermost thoughts of the living dead. Nicholas Hoult gives one of the best performances of his impressive young career as R, a teenage zombie who can’t remember his full name. Although his speech is limited, R can still make clever, sophisticated commentary in his head. He lives in an abandoned airport with a pack of fellow corpses, which includes good-old Rob Corddry as his best friend, M. Also occupying the airport are Bonies, zombies that have completely lost their flesh and compassion.
John Malkovich is General Grigio, who leads the resistance against the corpses and secures human survivors in a walled off city. Grigio sends a group of youths on a mission to find medical supplies outside the wall. This team includes Teresa Palmer as the general’s headstrong daughter, Julie, who has a run-in with R and his zombie entourage. Rather than eating her brains, R makes an unexpected human connection with Julie. He ends up saving Julie from his fellow zombies and taking her back to his broken down airplane. While Julie is naturally scared for her life at first, she eventually comes to see that there’s still humanity in R. He may still have the capacity to love and, even more amazingly, she may be able to love him back.
One of the most unexpected surprises of “Warm Bodies” is the gripping character of R, who is remarkably brought to life through Hoult’s performance. Playing a zombie might seem like a pretty thankless role that any extra can pull off. Through flawless body language, facial expressions, and speech, Hoult demonstrates just how difficult it can be to convincingly portray a zombie. Hoult’s always-amusing inner-monologue adds to his character, as we comprehend R’s struggle to become human again. He’s a genuine protagonist that we care about, a feat that no zombie movie has ever accomplished or really attempted.
Another incredibly achievement on behalf of the filmmakers is the believable romance. The screenplay easily could have restricted this concept to a cheap satire not even fit for a “Saturday Night Live” sketch. Against all odds though, Levine fashions R and Julie’s relationship into an epic love story, often calling to mind “Romeo & Juliet” and especially “Beauty and the Beast.” Like the best “Beauty and the Beast” tales, “Warm Bodies” manages to take the most unusual of pairings and tells a meaningful, sincere romance we can actually buy into.
Summit Entertainment, the same studio that brought us those “Twilight” pictures, produced “Warm Bodies.” This film may not stand a chance at making half of what “Breaking Dawn-Part 2” grossed in its opening weekend. If you’re looking for a paranormal romance with authentic characters, stakes, ideas and passion, however, look no further. “Warm Bodies” is the hipster love story that should be taking this generation by storm.
• Ahwatukee native and Desert Vista graduate Nick Spake is a student at Arizona State University. He has been working as a film critic for five years, reviewing movies on his website, NICKPICKSFLICKS.com. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.