With their rotting flesh, gore-soaked jaws and insatiable lust for brains — eating them, not using them — zombies have gotten the short end of the romantic stick. They have ceded sex appeal to their hot undead cousins, the vampires. No matter how many teenage boys may beg for it, you’re never going to see a flesh-eating corpse on the cover of a teen mag next to Justin Bieber.
Until now, maybe. The likable if not remarkable Warm Bodies is the world’s first romantic zombie comedy, told from the point of view of a dead guy, R (Nicholas Hoult of X-Men: First Class and A Single Man). R has slid far enough from humanity that he can’t remember his name, what he did or how he died, but he still hazily recalls some of the finer joys of life. He spends his days staggering around the airport with the rest of the undead, trying to avoid the vicious, skeletal Boneys (zombies who have surrendered any trace of humanity and are solely interested in the flesh-eating arts). R, on the other hand, has a friend he occasionally grunts at (Rob Corddry), and he has made himself a nice little nest in an abandoned airplane where he collects trinkets and plays records. John Waite’s Missing You apparently sounds a lot better when you’re dead.
Then, one day, the zombie horde is out foraging for meat, and R spots Julie (Teresa Palmer of I Am Number Four) and his heart starts pumping, figuratively at first, then eventually literally. He falls in love with her immediately despite the fact that she would have shot him in the head had she still had ammunition. Such are the vagaries of young love. The real problem, though, isn’t their different states of decay. Julie’s dad (John Malkovich) is a gung-ho zombie killer who is never going to believe that love can bring the dead back to life.
Director of the severely underappreciated Joseph Gordon-Levitt/Seth Rogen film 50/50, Jonathan Levine takes a few necessary liberties with the monster mythology, in particular with R’s looks. He can’t be grotesque, like the mindless ghouls on The Walking Dead; he has to be cute, if a little veiny. Logic is mostly thrown out the window; one of the great questions for the ages regarding zombie films is whether the undead can run, and Warm Bodies’ take on the subject is inconsistent. Zombie lore doesn’t allow for redemption, only head shots, and Levine’s film, amusing though it may be, is never gory enough to truly become a classic zombie movie. It also ignores the one basic necessity of monster films, even the funny ones: It really ought to be creepy or scary or gross, at least once or twice.
But Warm Bodies is about connecting, not severing, and as such it just isn’t interested in the dark side. The humor in the film ranges from gentle (R and Julie get to know each other via a musical montage of Hungry Heart) to mildly disgusting (their meet-cute happens when he’s eating her boyfriend’s brains). Still, though Warm Bodies never quite reaches the height of horror comedy — that crown belongs to Shaun of the Dead or Zombieland, take your pick — it’s not a bad tale of the dangers of isolation, the value of caring and how life is sweeter minus the taste of human flesh.
Cast: Nicholas Hoult, Teresa Palmer, Analeigh Tipton, John Malkovich, Dave Franco.
Writer/director: Jonathan Levine. Based on the novel by Isaac Marion.
Producers: David Hoberman, Todd Lieberman, Bruna Papandrea.
A Summit Entertainment release. Running time: 97 minutes. Zombie violence, some language. Opens Feb. 1 at area theaters.