Jonathan Levine’s Warm Bodies

“Captain, the corpses are fighting the skeletons!”

I saw the trailer for Warm Bodies some while back, when I had gone to see something else, and thought “Cute, but probably not something I’ll want to see.” Well, I was looking to kill a couple of hours and discovered that it was at my favorite theater — 15 minutes away, cheap admission for early shows. So I went.

Well, the Apocalypse has come, but it hasn’t been “the fire next time.” It was a virus, or something, that turned people into the living dead. Lots of people. Zombies, we’d call them. The remaining humans (living ones) call them “corpses.” There are also the Bonies, skeletal creatures who are too far gone to be anything other than pure appetite.

We are first introduced to R (Nicholas Hoult), who is a rather unusual corpse. He almost remembers things. He has a friend, of sorts, M — or more properly, “Mmmm” (Rob Corddry), and they almost have conversations. They all hang out at the airport because, as R puts it, that’s were people wait. R also has a place that he “lives,” an abandoned jetliner on which he keeps his things — he collects things, all sorts of things, but especially vinyl records.

We then cut to the humans in the city, safe, more or less, behind a massive concrete wall, built to keep the corpses and skeletons out. A group is about to set out on a salvage (read “scavenging” mission), with orders from Grigio (John Malkovich) to bring back whatever they find. The group includes Julie (Theresa Palmer), Grigio’s daughter; Perry (Dave Franco), her boyfriend; and her best friend, Nora (Analeigh Tipton). They hit it big — a trove of drugs and medicines, which they desperately need — but are discovered by a group of corpses, including R and M. In the battle, R kills Perry and begins to eat his brain — if he doesn’t destroy the brain, Perry will come back as a zombie. He also begins to ingest Perry’s memories, and partly because of that, and partly because he is, after all, an unusual corpse, he rescues Julie while Nora makes her escape.

And whether it’s Perry’s brain or simply because of some particular affinity between him and Julie, R begins to change.

I hadn’t expected much from Warm Bodies, and was pleasantly surprised. Director Jonathan Levine has managed to create one of the most bizarre love stories I’ve ever seen (Leda and the Swan has nothing on this one), and although it’s not perfect, it’s a lot better than I expected.

A lot of the credit goes to Hoult, who makes a very appealing corpse. It’s a predominantly physical role, and he handles it superbly. (Although I have so say, a lot of the humor — and it is a humorous film — plays on the contrast between R’s narration and his shambling, inarticulate physical presence.) And the transition as he changes is superb — subtle and very effective. (And kudos to the makeup artists, as well.) Palmer is equally effective — strong-willed, rebellious, and decisive, she is the perfect foil not only to R but to Perry and later, her father. The big disappointment was Malkovich, mostly because he didn’t have much to do, although I will say that in the climactic scene, his change of heart simply wasn’t believable. Yes, he had to come down that way, otherwise the story’s dead in the water, but there was no preparation for it — he just hadn’t come across as that reasonable.

And even though it’s about zombies, it’s not particularly gruesome. Even when the corpses are eating humans, its not gory. Happily, the film doesn’t have to rely one that — and with this movie, it would have been out of place.

98 minutes, PG-13

(Summit Entertainment, Make Movies, Mandeville Films, 2013)

About Robert Tilendis

Robert M. Tilendis lives a deceptively quiet life. He has made money as a dishwasher, errand boy, legal librarian, arts administrator, shipping expert, free-lance writer and editor, and probably a few other things he’s tried very hard to forget about. He has also been a student of history, art, theater, psychology, ceramics, and dance. Through it all, he has been an artist and poet, just to provide a little stability in his life. Along about January of every year, he wonders why he still lives someplace as mundane as Chicago; it must be that he likes it there.

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