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Movie Review: WARM BODIES

February 22, 2013

Review may contain mild spoilers. 

It seems like I can’t swing a cat these days without knocking over a shambling and/or sprinting corpse. We’ve got zombie movies, zombie video games, zombie books, zombie TV shows, and if you’re a fellow traveler on the geek internets, zombie references practically warrant categorization as a grammatical part of speech.

Rather than feeling burned out on the entire idea of zombies, however, this situation just makes it more difficult for a new piece of zombie media to rise above the noise and capture my attention. Much of the time it feels like the way action movie pitches after the success of DIE HARD supposedly became variations on DIE HARD.

“It’s zombies in a mall!”

“It’s zombies on a train!”

“It’s zombies on an island!”

WARM BODIES is pretty explicitly “zombie Romeo & Juliet.” Nicholas Hoult plays R, a zombie with some sense of his remaining humanity but no memory of his name beyond the first letter. As one of a small herd of zombies he comes across a group of human survivors scavenging in the urban wasteland, and falls in love with a young woman named Julie after eating the brains (and gaining the memories) of her boyfriend, Perry. Just to make sure no one misses it, R’s best friend is a zombie who recalls his name starts with M, and in a later scene where R infiltrates the fortified survivors’ city, he hides in Julie’s garden while she pines after him on the balcony.

One of the few pieces of book-larnin’ I still carry at the front of my mind is from a Shakespeare course I took in college. Regarding Romeo & Juliet, the professor pointed out that part of the power of the story is that it’s structured as a comedy, and is in fact very humorous early on. Throughout the play, it goes through many of the same essential beats as a comedy of errors, with miscommunication and mistaken identity, but instead of resulting in hijinks and escalating farce they result in violence and an ever-mounting death toll.

I don’t know if this view informed the filmmakers (or the author of the novel on which the film is based) in their approach to the material, but I think there’s a nice symmetry in taking a story which turns love and comedy into death and tragedy, and using it as a backbone to tell a story about a world overrun by death and tragedy transformed by love and comedy.

As you may know from the trailers, what develops between R and Julie somehow (they wisely don’t even try to explain it) causes R to begin to come back to life, and the effects begin to ripple out to affect other zombies, and will ultimately change the world. I think part of our fascination with zombies is the way they reflect so much of what we fear about the modern world — about being mindless consumers going about meaningless rituals day after day; about ourselves, or the people we love, being changed uncontrollably into something vile, some other thing wearing our faces; about losing everything we hold dear in an instant and being faced with the no-win choice to either endure or succumb. Zombie tales tend to be bleak, full of terror and loss, the “happy” endings ambiguous at best. WARM BODIES is the first zombie film I can think of to defy this cynicism and say: yes, it may be that we have lost something precious. But we can get it back. There is hope for us and for the future. We can do more than just survive — we can live.

It’s not what I would consider a perfect movie. The movie nearly stalls out in the first act with Julia trapped in R’s zombie bachelor pad, an abandoned 747 filled primarily with vinyl records. It’s the sequence in which they’re meant to be falling in love but which in my view goes on too long, with each scene being much the same beat rather than building on the last. The story of love conquering all is a little too pat and Symbolism 101 (water as a symbolism for rebirth? Such originality!), the plotting in general is a bit superficial, and I think everyone in the end comes out a little too okay with the fact that Julia’s new boyfriend killed her old one and ate his brains.

Still, it’s got genuine humor (Rob Corddry as M is especially fun) and genuine horror, and I appreciate it for its ambition and its desire to say something new with our nightmare du jour. Worth checking out.

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