The monsters of film, literature, and mythology were created so that people could confront the realities of human nature via metaphors, and few of them are capable of creating existential crises as devastating as those brought about by a zombie apocalypse. Not only do the heroes of the zombie genre face the challenges of a lawless society decimated by a plague, but they must also quickly adapt to life at the bottom of the food chain and cope with weighty issues of faith, morality, and the inevitability of death. While the genre has taken many twists and turns since the first corpse was reanimated and embarked on its endless hunt for living flesh, relatively few have focused on the less violent, yet arguably more terrifying, notion that the undead may retain a sliver of awareness.
Warm Bodies, written and directed by Jonathan Levine and based on the novel by Isaac Marion, proposes that zombies do harbor a spark of life. R (Nicholas Hoult), a zombie who has forgotten the details of his former existence save for the first letter of his first name, tries to find meaning wherever he can, whether through hazy imitations of the rituals of friendship, his salvaged record collection, or his red hoodie -- one of the only pieces of color in the dark, drab airport he calls home. Through his inner dialogue, the audience learns that the undead are plagued as much by the sting of lost potential as they are with a feral desire to feed. Hoult’s performance is so strong and the material so well-written that one would be hard-pressed not to feel bad for R, who, aside from the whole eating people thing, is a decent, gentle, and lonely young man.
One of the best things about Warm Bodies is the zombies’ perception of what constitutes a meaningful occurrence. They are not ambitious creatures. Rather than grand ideas, they hold precious what little ability they have to communicate, even if it is mainly limited to grunting. They cannot sing or write, dream or dance, but on some basic level they understand that these things are all terribly important. Interestingly, it’s this understanding that drives them to feed. As R explains, the consumption of a human brain allows the dead to briefly experience the memories of their victims. When he is introduced to Julie (Teresa Palmer) via eating her boyfriend’s brain, it is intense enough for him to rustle up three entire words (“keep you safe”), experience exactly one heartbeat, and comprehend the incredibly awkward situation of having murdered the boyfriend of your crush.
Julie, meanwhile, slowly and reluctantly develops a fierce affection for R, and hopes to convince her father (John Malkovich), who has become numb to the world as a coping mechanism, that a corpse is capable of feeling. When R communicates his distress after Julie’s departure, a zombie known as M (Rob Corddry) begins his own journey of self-rediscovery by recollecting an echo of his own former relationship struggles. M’s contribution to the discussion is, simply, “Bitches,” but it’s enough to plant the seed that will transform the zombie apocalypse into a zombie revolution of sorts.
The idea that love can literally bring back the dead does require a major suspension of disbelief, and many will question if it belongs anywhere near a zombie flick. Again, however, this is such a well-written, well-acted, and well-paced film with a great payoff at the end that it proves that “adorable” and “zombie movie” are capable of coexisting together, and that the living could stand to reevaluate existing versus aimlessly shuffling around.