Isaac Marion’s 2011 zombie romance novel Warm Bodies ends with a splashy, mildly ridiculous event that ties its themes together and makes its underlying zombie metaphor clear. In a way, Marion isn’t talking about diseased, undead creatures who consume brains; he’s talking about people in general, and how they sleepwalk through life or give in to despair, becoming zombies in a less literal sense. (Shaun Of The Dead got across the same point in two quick paired shots, noting how little difference Simon Pegg sees in his average morning when everyone around him becomes a shuffling corpse, but that’s beside the point.) The film adaptation cuts that climactic event; possibly writer-director Jonathan Levine correctly intuited that it would be harder to swallow onscreen. But the film adds in nothing to replace it, which makes the climax toothless and limp. And the adaptation 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.
The film starts out wry and clever, with Nicholas Hoult (also star of the upcoming Jack The Giant Slayer, but formerly the boy in About A Boy) mentally monologuing about what it’s like to be a zombie, dragging around an airport with his fellow monsters, wondering whether there’s more to unlife. For a lively, sharply observed few minutes, Warm Bodies mocks its genre and modern society at the same time. But then Hoult falls for a human (Teresa Palmer), the daughter of a grim general (John Malkovich, underused and undercommitted) who oversees what may be the last outpost of human survivors. Hoult rescues Palmer from his fellow zombies and confines her in his airport home, where he secrets her away from the rest of his kind. As the two begin a tentative Stockholm swooning relationship, his romantic obsession with her counteracts his mental lethargy, and he starts speaking again, gradually becoming less of a monster and more of a person. (Morbidly, he helps his crush along by chewing on some pocketed fragments of brain from his last human kill—Palmer’s boyfriend Dave Franco, whose precious memories of time spent with Palmer inspire Hoult.) Dimly inspired by the idea of something new and meaningful happening in their lives, some of Hoult’s fellow zombies—including his best friend, Rob Corddry—move to support him, but then another breed of desiccated, skeletal zombies step up to try to wipe out humanity and end this whole magical love thing before it becomes a movement.
On paper, in Marion’s hands, much of this story was about the protagonist’s internal life, in a way that turned him into a colorfully realized version of an every-teen: awkward at expressing himself, occasionally horrified at the gap between his feelings and his actions, uncertain where each new development might lead, but excited by every new hint of hope and of escape from the dreary, mundane daily plod. Onscreen, it’s a mildly comedic but bluntly told story about how teen romance magically cures zombie infection. Armchair critics have been comparing the film, sight unseen, to Twilight for its supernatural central pairing, but in execution, it’s far more like a twee, low-key, passive teen romance, along the lines of Nick And Nora’s Infinite Playlist, or Levine’s own 2008 film The Wackness. Its major resemblance to Twilight is in the way it waters down a perfectly good monster into a broody, ineffectual boy, then presents that boy as the apotheosis of romance. While it takes some of its premise (and the protagonists’ names) from Romeo And Juliet, it lacks that play’s passion and sense of burning need. For a movie about a love so powerful that it brings people back from the dead, it’s curiously tepid. In spite of its repeated, overwrought image of grey, dead zombie hearts flushing and throbbing with new life, it lacks a beating heart of its own.
For thoughts on, and a place to discuss, plot details not talked about in this review, visit Warm Bodies’ Spoiler Space.