Let’s face it: Zombies are wearing out their welcome. I’ve been a fan of the genre since childhood, but of late, I’ve needed more than just the presence of the shuffling, flesh-munching undead to enjoy a story. It also has to have a plot and meaningful dialog. The characters need to do things that make sense within the confines of their established universe. It needs to do something different.
I started watching “Warm Bodies” with a modicum of optimism. Nicholas Hoult (“About a Boy,” “Skins” [UK]), who plays the lovelorn undead poster boy, is a versatile young actor. The premise is intriguing and moderately original (aside from the human/monster star-crossed lovers aspect). But they didn’t execute it well. It wouldn’t have taken all that much. Just a few tweaks here and there. Maybe give the human characters some personality so they’re distinguishable from the zombies in ways apart from their melanin levels. An overhaul of the ending (and the foreshadowing thereof) wouldn’t hurt either, as its saccharine triteness cheapens the good stuff that came before it.
The film, written and directed by Jonathan Levine (“The Wackness,” “50/50”), comes from Isaac Marion’s popular YA novel. The opening scenes hint at a depth of character and narrative insight that, sadly, dissipates once the love story kicks in. Hoult plays R, a hoodied hipster zombie who spends his down time shuffling around his airport dwelling with other lost souls. His ennui-filled voice-over introduces the audience to the particulars of this post-apocalyptic universe as well as his struggles to find a meaningful place in it. He laments the amnesia that has pushed him into an existential crisis of sorts (“Who am I?…Why can’t I connect with people?”).
Though his thought process remains in tact, his speech function is reduced to groans and the occasional word, phrase or clause. I love the idea of an Emo kid trapped inside the body of an instinct-driven predator. But the story betrays its own originality by eventually succumbing to romantic tropes. Every step it takes toward that end pulls it further away from the seed of brilliance from whence it came.
R isn’t completely unique amongst his peers. He has found a kindred spirit in M (played by an outstanding Rob Corddry). The pals groan at one another over empty cocktail glasses at the airport bar. Occasionally, they organize field trips into the city in the hopes of bumping into humans who have dared to venture beyond their steel walls in search of supplies.
R’s heart literally skips when he first sees Julie (Teresa Palmer), their eyes locking across a crowded bloodbath. After chowing down on her boyfriend and pocketing the leftover brains, he is compelled not only to spare her life, but also to convince her to come back to his place under the guise of protection. She goes without protest partly because she’s stunned by his mercy but probably also because, even for a dead guy, he’s pretty easy on the eyes.
After a couple of days spent listening to records (“Better…ssssound”, he grunts pretentiously) and trying on sunglasses, R starts to change. This is partly due to the absorption of memories and emotions (but just the romantic ones and in chronological order) that occurs when a zombie consumes a human brain. R’s warm and fuzzy feelings for Julie are amplified by his secret snacking on boyfriend leftovers. But his increased speech abilities and sudden repossession of physical senses have more to do with burgeoning forbidden love than zombie superpowers. Not only is it shoddy writing to default to the notion that love conquers all, even death. It also devalues R’s remarkable conscientiousness as a morally conflicted zombie. Julie can’t love R until he changes who and what he is. What an affirmative message for young people!
The strained zombie dialog that increases in verbosity as the film wears on also feels a lot like cheating. This story could have been so much more emotionally resonant if the actors had to…I don’t know…act to convey their thoughts. (See the “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” episode, “Hush” for an example on how to further a plot without dialog. In it, none of the characters could speak.) There are so many instances in which R could have used gestures, props (his airplane hipster pad is full of them) and facial expressions to communicate. I’m sure they still have Charades in the not-too-distant alternate future. Worse yet, much of what he says is exposition and often redundant. At least he never mentions anything about a Dark Passenger.
Contradictions and contrivances abound. Characters have instantaneous changes of heart, including M who takes about 5 seconds between scream-arguing that Julie is food to accepting her as part of the gang. R makes a joke about zombies being slow and then a couple of scenes later he and Julie must outrun them. Julie never seems all that broken up about the death of her boyfriend even after she learns that R was behind it. I guess they should get props for not using the “that was before I knew the real you!” plot device. But it still seems pretty convenient. Julie’s father, General “Pinot” Grigio (John Malkovich) is a narrow-minded, overprotective hardass. Yet, he doesn’t think twice about sending his only child into Zombieland on a “Pharmasalvage” mission. R is generally unwieldy but his motor skills are fine-tuned when the situation calls for it.
The situation calls for it during the war against the Bonies, a common enemy of both human and zombie. Bonies are zombies who have eaten their own flesh, thus stripping themselves of all humanity. Cool concept, right? Too bad they borrowed their skeleton effects from “Army of Darkness.”
It makes for an interesting story when the characters face seemingly insurmountable obstacles. You can still have a happy ending when those obstacles still exist but the characters have figured out a way to deal with them. “Warm Bodies” could have been the anti-“Twilight.” Instead, it’s just reanimated tripe.