'Warm Bodies' is a one-joke zombie movie
By Glenn Kenny, Special to MSN Movies
When it comes to teen angst, writer-director Jonathan Levine doesn't have much use for the conventional romantic or comedic approaches. His debut feature, 2006's "All the Boys Love Mandy Lane," upended the slasher movie and its attendant concerns with adolescent sexuality in an aptly perverse fashion; his 2008 film, "The Wackness," was a class-and-race-conscious exploration of growing up too fast in '90s New York that, among other things, offered the unusual spectacle of Sir Ben Kingsley necking with Mary-Kate Olsen. After acquitting himself well with "50/50," about how cancer can mess up your early 20s, Levine is back in teen territory again, and again he's taking an unusual approach. The main difficulty for the young folks who fall for each other in "Warm Bodies" is that one of them is dead.
The zombie (or as he refers to himself, "corpse") who can't remember his own name or the apocalyptic event that rendered him a shambling brain-eating mess lives with his fellow speech-and-hygiene-challenged undead creatures at an airport. Pale, dead-eyed, bloody-lipped, and in pretty ripe clothes, including a 21st-century young person's de rigueur hoodie, R, as he calls himself (Nicholas Hoult), leads a pretty empty and aimless existence, his love of music and collecting stuff notwithstanding. A troop of living human survivors of the zombie-creating event, including Julie (Teresa Palmer), the gorgeous, spirited daughter of a leading anti-zombie crusader (John Malkovich), head out of their walled city to lay into some medical supplies. The zombies smell blood and waylay the human party. R and Julie don't exactly meet cute; R actually kills her living boyfriend and is introduced to her, in a sense, by eating his victim's brains, which infuse him with that person's memories. Yuck. But Julie brings out several things in R: a human intelligence, emotions and a protective side. He saves her from his fellows, and an odd getting-to-know-you process begins, leavened by the zombie character's self-consciousness, which is conveyed in witty voice-over. After a particularly bad faux pas with Julie, R thinks, "This date is not going well. I wanna die all over again."
That's funny, and there are other good lines throughout, but they don't entirely cover up the fact that this is pretty much a one-joke movie. Zombies are traditionally among the creepiest of horror movie nemeses because, the mythology goes, there's no reasoning with them; they're appetites on two legs, and that's it. George A. Romero's various zombie movies evolved these characters so that they came to represent a seemingly inassimilable "other," but Levine isn't going for anything so intellectually ambitious here: He wants to make zombies lovable, which means retooling the mythology. He creates a hierarchy of zombiedom in which the REAL bad guys are the skeletal, fast-moving "bonies," who go after the corpses once they start to manifest -- pretty much literally -- some heart. This is both too much and not enough. Levine's ultimate vision of the undead condition is diverting, but ultimately not particularly compelling.
To accentuate the positive in the diverting department, though: The performers are more than up to the material. When the then-11-year-old Hoult came to prominence in 2002's "About a Boy," I noted in a review of that movie that he had great satanic eyebrows, and he still does, and he uses them to good effect here. Teresa Palmer shows a charm you'd never guess at from her work in the abominable "I Am Number Four." And the movie's flashes of wit, however minor, keep up throughout, and culminate in a final shot that's as unexpectedly memorable an image as you could hope for in a movie whose ultimate message is that love is all you need.
Glenn Kenny is chief film critic for MSN Movies. He was the chief film critic for Premiere magazine from 1998 to 2007. He contributes to various publications and websites, and blogs at http://somecamerunning.typepad.com. He lives in Brooklyn.