Warm Bodies (2013, directed by Jonathan Levine) is a perverse reworking of Romeo and Juliet in the idiom of the contemporary zombie romantic comedy. I can't believe I just wrote that sentence. The future is not what I expected it to be. These truly are the days of miracles and wonders. In truth, I'm not entirely opposed to adding legions of the living dead to Shakespeare. Certainly, this could work for Lear or Richard III. Hell, the living dead are already on stage in Hamlet and Macbeth. What bothers me about Warm Bodies is not the mash-up, but rather how warm and cuddly it has made the zombie. Still, I don't suppose it's entirely at fault for this. The process by which we have ended up here started decades ago.
The story here follows R, a teen zombie who wanders aimlessly around the airport. There's something missing in his undeath, but he doesn't quite know what it is. So he goes about his undead business, staggering about, occasionally collecting bits of the past and storing it in his lair on a plane on the tarmac. R is bright for his kind. He can even communicate with his best friend among the undead. Together, the agree to go on a foray into the city in search of food. They're hungry for flesh, after all. Meanwhile, the remaining enclave of living humans organizes a foray into the city, as well. They're led by Julie, the daughter of the leader of the living. The living have walled themselves up in the center of the city and attempted to rebuild what civilization they can. Julie's dad has been merciless in his pursuit of survival. He entrusts his daughter with the leadership of a raid to find pharmaceuticals. With her is her boyfriend, Perry, who is gung ho. He's haunted by some secret trauma and has grown apart from Julie. During the raid, they come face to face with R's band of zombies and they clash. In the scrum, R kills Perry and eats his brain. Eating brains delivers to the undead a jolt of the life of the living, and R suddenly sees Julie in a new light. He's smitten. He contrives to rescue her and take her back to his lair. Once there, he makes clumsy attempts at gaining her trust, indeed, of gaining her friendship. Something awakens inside of him--prompted by the consumption of even more of Perry's brains--and soon, the living dead are gaining hope. Unfortunately, those zombies who are too far gone for human feeling, those who are little more than whithered skeletons, are not so moved and they want to stamp out R's budding romance. R and Julie flee the airport and Julie eventually gives him the slip, heading back to the enclave. R follows, but can he convince Julie and her people that things are changing in time to head off a disaster? Does she have any love for him in her heart? That's the question...
I think what I resent most about this film is how milquetoast it is. It's PG-13, natch, so it can't indulge in Peter Jackson-esque gore slapstick or Romero-ish shock tactics, nor can it delve into the perverse waters of necrophilia suggested by its premise. I'm normally not a critic of the demographic targeting inherent in the PG-13 rating. A good movie isn't going to be harmed by it. This film is an exception. This has been effectively neutered. Part and parcel of this is the fact that the zombie apocalypse gets upended here. Instead of sweeping away civilization and its discontents, this spends the second half of its running time rebuilding the world. This might not bother me, but for the fact that the world it imagines, sweetness and light and understanding not withstanding, is a military dictatorship. When the wall comes down at the end of the film, it doesn't upend that. This is a film that reassures the audience that things will be alright, that love will conquer all. But never mind the zombie genre. This also fails to realize that Romeo and Juliet is a tragedy--a pretty dire one, at that. The "forbidden love" of our two young heroes doesn't seem entirely difficult or even troubled.
The actors here are mostly good and keep a straight face through all of this. Nicholas Hoult, who plays R, is a bit too fashionably groomed as a zombie--even as a zombie, he apparently still has access to plenty of product for his hair. But then, they need to make him somewhat attractive to sell the premise, so whatever. He doesn't have a challenging part in any event, but he makes the most of it, mainly acting with his eyes. The film's production design is pretty good, too: the filmmakers have re-dressed Montreal to make it look credibly ruined. But the special effects are mostly cheapjack. There aren't many gore effects, nor even any interesting zombie effects. Neither Nicholas Hoult nor Rob Coddry (who play's R's friend, M) are asked to act through prosthesis. Importantly, none of the background zombies are asked to do this, either. The film's lone concession to special effects are the "bony" zombies, and those look particularly cheapjack. Like, SyFy cheap. There's a conspicuous lack of imagination in realizing any of the living dead, here, which is unforgivable in an era when you can see very creative zombie effects on television week in and week out. I have some issues with the way the characters are constructed, too. R is a record collector--even as a zombie, he has a discerning ear with a preference for vinyl. In the parlance of the film, this equates to a soul. Julie shares some of his tastes. This gives the film cover for musical interludes. Mind you, I like the way this movie uses Jimmy Cliff's "The Harder They Come" at the outset, but that's not diegetic. When R and Julie bond over Springsteen's "Hungry Heart" and Dylan's Blood on the Tracks, this veers a bit off the rails. It's possible that they're both fans, but if this is intended to make either of them look hip (and it is), then it fails. This doesn't have any kind of finger on the pulse of the zeitgeist. (And I LOVE Springsteen and Dylan, but this is a case of the filmmakers privileging their tastes in a way that makes no story sense).
Mind you, this movie is pleasant enough. It's not egregiously bad, but it's so intent on not doing anything offensive that it succeeds in becoming completely safe and completely forgettable. I miss the days when zombie movies were genuinely transgressive. This film is at least aware of the transgressive nature of the zombie movie--one of its best gags involves a DVD of Lucio Fulci's Zombi--but it can't (or won't) act on it. I wish this had even a taste of that for seasoning, but that would put off the YA audience. Or maybe not. Clearly, the filmmakers here never spent their teenage weekends at all night horror movie parties with their friends. Would that they had.