So, zombies are the new vampire. Now they, too, are sympathetic, romantic and stilted in their speech. They, too, have glowing eyes and lips of an unnatural hue. At least they don’t sparkle. Not yet.
Alas, the male zombie heartthrob/lead from Warm Bodies, named simply “R” in the novel by Isaac Marion and played by Nicholas Hoult in the film, would fit right in at the cafeteria table with Edward Cullen—he is whiter than white and also appears to be made of stone. He could just as easily hang with Stefan and Damon Salvatore, though he is not the “bad boy” those Vampire Diaries guys are.
As for the female lead, Julie (played by Teresa Palmer), she looks uncannily like Twilight‘s Kristen Stewart in certain shots, though blonde. Thankfully, she is far more emotive and human than Stewart’s Bella, and she is not a trip-over-everything klutz. No, this girl can run. And shoot zombies. She is the life of the film (pun intended) and, for once, is not an insipid, helpless damsel waiting for a male true love to come rescue her. Instead, she’s a strong, smart, confident go-getter willing to face off with zombies and her macho militarized father (John Malkovich).
Though I liked the book’s fresh, sarcastic tone and enjoyed how the movie used an inner-monologue style that drew on the meta-critical, self-aware aspects of the book, the other parts of the film left me cold. Or at least not brimming with life. I liked that it’s a zombie film that makes fun of the zombie trope to good effect, and I liked the moments of wry humor—the Fight Club-esque critiques of America as a violent-ridden consumer wasteland of airports and walled cities—but overall I found the film couldn’t decide what it wanted to be. It’s a zombie romance one minute and a zombie comedy the next, with some action/fight scenes thrown in for good measure. I hungered for more humor, more subtle critique of our zombified existence in pre-apocalyptic America. Instead, the film tried to incorporate too much action and too many movie touchstones: the ride in the convertible, the first kiss in water, the jealous father, the scary villainous monsters, the slow-motion drowning shot. You get the picture.
What bothered me most, however, was the romance narrative. Yes, another love story where the creepy guy gets the girl. Sure, R is cute, but for heck sake, he killed Julie’s boyfriend. Ate his brains! (Well, part of them—he sensibly saves some of them to snack on later.) In the book and film, eating a human’s brain allows zombies to live that person’s memories in their now dead brain, so R draws out the brain eating experience, wanting to “taste” the feelings of being alive. These memories can, in fact, account for why he falls in love with Julie: He has ingested the feelings of her boyfriend Perry and, like him, he now loves her as well.
As if killing off someone’s boyfriend isn’t a bad enough way to start a romance, R then kidnaps Julie from the world of the living, covers her in zombie grime to keep her safe and holes her up in his makeshift home—an abandoned airplane. She desperately wants to leave. She tries to escape. She has to beg him for food. Ah, but eventually those zombie eyes win her over and she sees the light—he is not a boyfriend-eating kidnapper after all, just a misunderstood zombie dude. And a cute one. And so she falls for him. Of course.
Ultimately, their zombie-human relationship attempts to serve as a metaphor for tolerance—as in, “Zombies are people too, stop judging them!” While the impetus behind such messages of acceptance is good, it saddens me that most mainstream arguments for tolerance and diversity are couched in supernatural, out-of-this-world terms—as when vampires are the new outcasts vying for social acceptance (Twilight, True Blood, Vampire Diaries) or, as here, where zombies are the oppressed. Further, the “solution” to intolerance in films like this is not social justice writ large, but romance, sexual desire and hot (or cold!) vampire/human, zombie/human kisses. This movie and its ilk suggest that if only we can love one another, even when some of us want to eat each others’ brains, it will all be OK. I find that message a tad brainless.
Sure R is likeable. As zombies go. Sure he is attractive. As dead people go. And he seems like a sweet, kind-hearted zombie. He would be a good friend! But, he also must eat humans to survive. Sure, Julie’s love cures him and he becomes human again. Like that is a new romance trope: Beauty saves the Beast. Cue the music. (Which this movie did a lot. The score was good, but a bit heavy-handed. I don’t like to feel emotionally manipulated by the soundtrack—the music should echo the emotion of the narrative, not try and create it.)
At least for once the woman has the brains in the movie. And is the better driver. She is fierce and smart and strong and a badass runner. Further, her best friend Nora (Analeigh Tipton) is a funny, wise and loyal sidekick. If only there were more of these type of lively ladies and less dead male romantic heroes. Sigh.