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Non-Review Review: Warm Bodies

Warm Bodies is a very curious film – a weird genre fusion that feels like it really shouldn’t work, but with just barely enough charm to pull it off. The movie hinges on the wonderfully crazy idea of blending zombie horror with romantic comedy. Drawing from the book of the same name, the film is light enough and fast enough that it never overstays its welcome. There are times when it overplays its hand, when it threatens to descend into sentimental nonsense, and when the two genres seem to threaten to smother one another. However, it has enough charm and wit that it never veers too far off course before correcting itself.

At its best, it demonstrates that there’s life in these two old genres yet.

Uncanny.

Uncanny.

It’s very weird to imagine how somebody came up with the idea of fusing a fairly conventional teenage romance to a pretty generic zombie apocalypse. It’s hardly a match that seems ideally suited to one or the other. Zombie films are, by definition, cynical. They portray the collapse of society from which even death itself cannot offer an escape. Romantic comedies, on the other hand, are often optimistic comfort food. We believe that there’s an ideal match out there and that two people who are meant to be together can overcome just about any obstacle thrown their way.

It’s a marked contrast in outlook, and Warm Bodies actually reconciles these two competing ideologies rather well. Indeed, I think I can very safely say that it is the most cheerfully optimistic movie ever made about the end of the world. After all, these movies rarely end well for humans – the zombie apocalypse is far too cynical for that. There’s none of the romance of vampires or werewolves. Zombies are ugly, generally less than bright and normally quite slow. So any movie that suggests that the human race will end through a slow and slouching inevitable invasion by these grey and dull creatures can’t be too hopeful about humanity’s chances.

Ever feel like you're just not living?

Ever feel like you’re just not living?

“Things can change,” survivalist leader Grigio tells his daughter, Juliet. “They can get worse.” That’s pretty much the outlook of every zombie film ever. Mankind sucks… and then there are zombies. We end up locked up inside fortifications, barricading ourselves against the world, waiting to die. The zombies might be the ones who are dead, but the human race generally entombs itself. Warm Bodies pulls a pretty major twist on this outlook.

Indeed, Warm Bodies will be a little too saccharine for some, a little too happy and bright for an end-of-the-world film. And, to be fair, there are moments when the script goes a little bit too far into the realm of the rom-com. After all, it’s easy enough to accept zombies wandering the earth, as they are so far outside the audience’s frame-of-reference, but human interactions are a bit trickier. Warm Bodies has a nice zombie-movie take on the “third act twist” that rom-coms favour. You know the moment I’m talking about, the point where it seems like the two leads are to be broken up forever… or at least until three minutes before the end credits.

Be careful about love bites...

Be careful about love bites…

To be fair, Warm Bodies has a great deal of fun by giving “R” the kind of baggage that only a zombie could really have. However, the problem is that his secret is a bit more complicated and sinister than the kind of stuff that normally drives a wedge between rom-com couples. He didn’t simply forget her birthday, or flirt with the coffee girl, or something. “R” did something that is probably pretty severe in the romantic relationship stakes, and we never see Juliet deal with that. She is understandably very upset about it, but then she rather quickly gets over it. The film doesn’t seem to know what to do.

That’s really the biggest problem with Warm Bodies. It has a clever idea, and a witty script, but it struggles a bit with getting the characters to work inside that framework. I mean, they’re all basically functional. And most of them are quite likeable. In particular, I love the movie’s take on a zombie friendship. “Hungry?” one grunts. “City,” one groans. And there is their plan made for the day. Unfortunately, it’s the larger arcs the movie has difficulty with.

"Don't worry, the Hunger Games made teens with guns a lot more mainstream..."

“Don’t worry, the Hunger Games made teens with guns a lot more mainstream…”

For example, consider Juliet’s father, Grigio. He’s played by John Malkovich. He is set up as the cynical survivalist leader, who will do whatever it takes to survive. We learn that he killed his own wife after she turned, so he has some baggage. As a result, he’s sceptical of Juliet’s claim that zombies can change. However, there’s never any emotional pay-off. After all, Grigio can’t believe the zombies could be saved, because that would mean that his wife could have been saved. The movie hints at that, and it provides solid motivation and explanation for his actions, but there’s not any exploration or development. It just sort of happens.

Still, this is the biggest problem with Warm Bodies, which is generally quite smart and well-constructed. Indeed, the use of zombies as a metaphor here is especially clever. It’s building on Romero’s films, and using them in a context that makes sense within a romantic comedy. Quite simply, it’s put together very smartly. “R” is trapped in the same routine. He has trouble expressing himself. He feels like his life is going nowhere. He can’t connect with anybody. He’s both the perfect lead for a romantic comedy, and the perfect zombie. Fusing the two together is a very shrewd idea.

That's so... er... cute, I guess?

That’s so… er… cute, I guess?

After all, what is the point of a love story if it can’t bring a bit of colour to your cheeks? In Dawn of the Dead, George Romero shrewdly had zombies miming through their day-to-day lives. Warm Bodies picks up on that, with zombie security guards still operating metal detectors and zombie janitors still shuffling with their buckets and mops. In one respect, the walking dead aren’t too different from those of us living drab lives day-in and day-out. While Dawn of the Dead shrewdly used this for social commentary, Warm Bodies cleverly uses it as the back drop from a story of how love just might conquer all.

Plus the movie is wry enough that it never takes itself too seriously. Hungry Heart is really the best soundtrack choice possible for a zom-rom-com. And I like that Warm Bodies comes up with a reasonably logical explanation for why zombies like brains so much, beyond “they did in The Return of the Living Dead!” Okay, the biology might not be too sound… but this is a zombie movie. Any real claim to scientific accuracy is probably just getting in the way.

I hope she got his good side...

I hope she got his good side…

That said, it does feel a little weird in places. For one thing, as charming as Nicholas Hoult is – and he is charming – it’s very weird to hear so much coherent chatter over a stumbling and mumbling zombie. While his commentary is funny (“say something human!” he thinks loudly when stopped by armed guards, as his body looks on confused), it takes a little getting used to. Of course, it’s the most efficient way of getting inside the mind of “R”, but I can’t help but feel like the film would be a little stronger if we were further removed from “R” before his humanity begins to reassert itself.

Still, these aren’t the worst of problems. They hold Warm Bodies back from being either a classic zombie movie or a classic romantic comedy, but there’s enough here that it’s worth a look. At the very least, it’s a novel approach to both genres – something that should celebrated.

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5 Responses

  1. You say John Malkovich is in here?! I am totally going to have to check to this film out then! You gave a very good and compelling review! Thanks!

  2. Reblogged this on Flocus Studios and commented:
    Specs… what about Warm Bodies?

  3. Great review! 😀

  4. Have you read the books? AMAZING. I got a chance to talk to the author this week about how he uses scent in literature. These are so much more than zombie books! http://pioneerperfume.com/2015/10/28/q-a-warm-bodies-author-isaac-marion-writes-dead-people-better-than-most-people-write-live-ones-and-smell-is-part-of-it/

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