Writer-director Jonathan Levine risks much with a zombie movie that's short on gore and long on emotional issues.
So let's get that on the table right now. As you could probably ascertain from the 14A rating, Warm Bodies is not the movie to see if you're looking for state-of-the-art gore effects and non-stop gut-munching. Indeed, this is the kind of movie that robs the typical zombie movie of one its more sacrosanct guilty pleasures.
To wit: Zombie killing is supposed to be a guilt-free act of violence because the victims are already dead.
Not here. The hero of the film is one of the shambling ranks of the undead.
He has forgotten his name, so he calls himself "R." As played by Nicholas Hoult (who played the needy pre-teen ragamuffin in About a Boy 11 years ago), he is not unlike the kind of adolescent who shambles through life, going through the motions of a daily routine, his brain clouded by hormones.
He'll bow to peer pressure (and gnawing hunger) to join other zombies in a hunt for still-living humans. But he's different from the typical Romero-esque ghoul in that he still has a working consciousness. He even suffers from teen alienation.
"Why can't I connect with people?" he asks himself plaintively.
"Oh, right, I'm dead."
R has a consciousness-expanding incident when he and a few of his fellows attack a group of young people foraging for food beyond their walled compound. When he eats the brains of one of his human meals (Levine films this with as much discretion as possible), he absorbs the unfortunate's memories. The victim (Dave Franco) happens to be the boyfriend of Julie (Teresa Palmer). And she happens to be the daughter of the post-apocalypse's pre-eminent zombie fighter (John Malkovich).
In short, R suddenly absorbs protective feelings for Julie and takes steps to protect her from the other zombies. He even hides her in his makeshift home, a derelict private jet, now functioning as a kind of zombie bachelor pad, complete with vinyl record player.
You might not realize it to see the shambling zombies, but the story has a classical inspiration predating George Romero by a few centuries. That adds to the fun, but doesn't really prevail over the movie's inadequacies, which include a pace roughly as sluggish and shambolic as its hero.
But it is in the way Levine distinguishes the material from the usual zombie movie that is most admirable. This is no Twilight with the undead. Even devoid of any serious sexual heat, Warm Bodies prevails on a plucky romantic spirit that strives to demonstrate love conquers all... even a penchant for eating human brains.
Selected excerpts of reviews of Warm Bodies.
"Takes its premise painfully literally, resulting in a series of unlikely developments guaranteed to get hardcore zombie-movie fans frothing with rage -- if they don't doze off first."
-- Tasha Robinson, AV Club
"Imagine a Twilight where the panting, flirting teens were in on the joke, where the gulf between them was more about communication skills than supernatural schisms."
-- Roger Moore, McClatchy Tribune
"Warm Bodies is a well-paced, nicely directed, post-apocalyptic love story with a terrific sense of humour and the, um, guts to be unabashedly romantic and unapologetically optimistic."
-- Richard Roeper, Chicago Sun-Times
"The likable if not remarkable Warm Bodies is the world's first romantic zombie comedy, told from the point of view of a dead guy."
-- Connie Ogle, Miami Herald