Smart horror fans know that they have to be flexible on some things. Sometimes a vampire is a feral beast of a monster, and sometimes a vampire is a tall, handsome wimp who struggles with emotional baggage. Sometimes the boogeyman who used to scare you every Halloween is transformed into a hulking brute who kills people simply because his white-trash mama wouldn't take him trick or treating. And sometimes zombies, usually the most basic and consistent of movie monsters, are not mindless chewing machines, but love-struck young men who change their ways when enamored with a pretty human female. It happened in the little-seen My Boyfriend's Back (1993), and the concept of "undead boyfriend" is back again with Warm Bodies, a certifiably strange but quietly appealing "zombie rom-com" that's based on the novel of the same name by Isaac Marion.
Adapted for the screen with equal doses of earnest sweetness and absurd wit by Jonathan Levine (All the Boys Love Mandy Lane), Warm Bodies may sound like "zombie Twilight" on the page, but that's pretty much where the similarities end. While author Marion and screenwriter Levine are clearly taking some large liberties with zombie lore, there's actually a method to their madness. Put another way: if you got angry when movie zombies learned to RUN, you probably won't like Warm Bodies very much. In this goofy little movie, zombies can talk, drive, and (of course) make endless doe eyes at a beautiful blonde girl named Julie.
Our undead hero is a zombie known simply as "R," and as the movie opens he's on his umpteenth day of wandering through an airport, surrounded by similar corpses but still completely alone. The young zombie is so evolved, in fact, that he has an airplane all to himself, which he has adorned with hundreds of trinkets and old rock albums. But when R and some "colleagues" stumble across (and ultimately devour) a squad of survivors, violence turns to romance in short order. Smitten by the beautiful Julie, R takes her back to his airplane to enjoy some Guns & Roses records. Yes, I'm serious. And the flick gets even weirder than that.
It's the affable tone buried amidst such potentially dark comedy that manages to lift Warm Bodies beyond the status of mere curiosity. Yes, the old-school horror fan in me bristled a few times when confronted with some of this movie's "new" zombie mythology, but if we don't allow our movie monsters to evolve in various ways, then they quickly become tiresome. Warm Bodies monkeys with the zombie "rules" that we know and love, but I'll take a movie that fiddles with the formula over a movie that colors strictly between the lines. This is an oddball romantic farce that takes place in a horror movie world, not a horror movie with a few chuckles tossed in for flavor.
It certainly doesn't hurt that the young leads (Nicholas Hoult and Teresa Palmer) are on the same tonal wavelength as the director; both performers deliver fine work with a premise that, frankly, could fall horribly flat without a pair of strong actors. And while Hoult and Palmer are the main focus of virtually every scene, there's still room for some solid support from the likes of John Malkovich (gruff survival leader), Rob Corddry (kind-hearted zombie), and the lovely Analeigh Tipton, who isn't given much to do, but does interrupt a potential montage sequence with the movie's best laugh.
Clearly intended for the demographic best described as "young ladies," Warm Bodies is an admirably odd and unexpectedly sweet little genre concoction. It won't take a literary professor to decipher the movie's simplistic messages about love and tolerance, but the moral is a nice little bonus from a flick that already earns strong marks for wit, weirdness, and a slightly self-mocking tone that helps even the silly stuff go down easy. I'm not saying I want all my zombie movies this "different," but hey, once in a while "different" is pretty refreshing.