Warm Bodies suggests what the Twilight films might have been if the Twilight films didn’t, you know, suck. This movie is also a tale of forbidden young interspecies love, but it’s self-aware and funny and really charming. Basically, it’s a reworking of Romeo and Juliet (there’s even a balcony scene) with zombies. But the traditional zombie lore has been cleverly tweaked. Now, when the lurching undead catch a human and eat its brains, they also ingest their victim’s thoughts and emotions -- and suddenly feel a re-stirring of their own blighted humanity.
The story, derived from Isaac Marion’s 2010 novel, is set in the usual post-apocalyptic future -- eight years after a mysterious plague turned most of the population into shambling gut munchers and drove the uninfected survivors into walled compounds, from which they cautiously emerge to scavenge for supplies. In a cute twist on the 1978 Dawn of the Dead -- in which George Romero relocated his zombie war to a shopping mall for purposes of social commentary -- the zombies in this picture are headquartered in an abandoned airport, where they shuffle about day in and day out, pausing only to share an occasional grunt or snarl. Their endless, dead-eyed perambulation suggests in a horribly vivid way what it might be like to be stuck in a crowded air terminal where every flight has been delayed forever.
One of these walking dead is a young guy called R (Nicholas Hoult, of X-Men: First Class and the British TV series Skins). R doesn’t remember much about his pre-death existence, beyond the fact that his name started with R, but judging by the rancid hoodie in which he wanders around, he figures he was probably an unemployed slacker. Unusually for a zombie, he also feels lonely, and he suspects that another of his acquaintances, a pulse-challenged character called M (Rob Corddry), might harbor similar feelings.
Out hunting for dinner one night, R and his zombie pack encounter a group of tasty young humans from the local compound. R kills one of them, a boy named Perry (Dave Franco), and, in the customary manner, starts eating his brain. Suddenly R’s head is flooded with Perry’s romantic memories of a young blonde woman -- and when R looks up, there she is, looking really cute and training a rifle on him. The girl’s name is Julie (Australian actress Teresa Palmer), and after much scuffling and gunfire, R manages to convince her that he means her no harm. He even persuades her to accompany him back to his pad—an abandoned 747 airliner—where, among other homey things, he has a battery-powered record player and a stash of vinyl albums. (Vinyl, he barely manages to say, has “better sound -- more alive.”)
Can this nascent love ever blossom? Julie’s father (John Malkovich), hard-nosed commander of the humans’ compound, will surely be opposed. But with some makeup assistance from her friend Nora (the reliably excellent Analeigh Tipton), she manages to sneak R inside anyway, and he actually does pass parental inspection -- briefly, anyway. The ensuing complications are generally funny, and the young lovers’ growing bond—bolstered by R’s resurgent humanity—is sweet without being sappy, or in any other way Twilight-like.
The story’s structure imposes a technical problem, however. Since R is barely able to utter a word in the opening sections of the film (he grows more adept as things move along), most of his dialogue has to be rendered in voice-over. And since the character must also maintain a single, conked-out facial expression, the possibilities for Hoult to project some sort of personality are minimal. That he manages to do so at all is a tribute to his line-reading skill, and to the wryly deadpan dialogue. (“This isn’t going well,” R mumbles when Julie pulls away from him. “I wanna die all over again.”)
There’s also a breed of skeletal super-zombies—“Bonies,” they’re called—whose intermittent onslaughts grow tiresome, not least because of the run-of-the-mill motion-capture technique that’s been used to create them. And it would’ve been nice if director Jonathan Levine (50/50) had encouraged Malkovich to be a little more Malkovichian—his usual surging flamboyance is oddly dampened here.
The movie also feels just a little long, even at 97 minutes. But it has real heart (as opposed to whatever it is the Twilight films have). And Hoult and Palmer easily persuade us that their characters were made for each other. Watching Julie resting in bed, R thinks, “It must be nice to sleep. I wish I could dream.” Turns out he has good reason to do so.