Rom Zom Com. While one film defined it, few dared approach it because creating a good film that focuses on only one or two genres is daunting enough in its own right, but tossing in a dose of the supernatural too? No easy task. So does Warm Bodies succeed? Yes, but not in the way you’d expect…
Set in a post-outbreak world, Warm Bodies is told through the internal narrative of R- a zombie not-so-subtly mirroring the despondent, malcontent twenty-somethings of today just, you know, more dead. R spends his days shuffling around a dilapidated airport where he avoids Bonies (a fiercer, skeletal reflection of himself) and collects remnants of a life left behind for his zombie shelter he’s created in a deserted runway plane. Occasionally he attempts guttural conversation with his only friend (Rob Corddry) as they try to recapture moments of their humanity at a vacant airport bar. However, all of that changes when he happens upon an attractive young survivor and tweaks something in his internal ‘eat brains’ chemistry and after falling hard becomes her rotting protector as she tries to return to the last human outpost.
If some of that is throwing up red flags in your tasty brain, it’s because Warm Bodies puts a bullet in the skull of conventional zombie logic. It takes a giant dump on the tried-and-true expectations we’re supposed to have of the undead and you know what? It works brilliantly. It’s as if for years scriptwriters have looked at zombies and been content with a mass of inoffensive bullet-fodder and somewhere along the way the very notion of prior humanity was quite literally lost in the shuffle. Purists will bemoan the violation of zombie cinema law but those of us who feel our enjoyment of the genre has been strangled by it will find the grip loosened in Warm Bodies as it takes risk after risk to bring us something new.
Granted, this only works if the cast can carry the concept and Warm Bodies succeeds here as well for the most part. Because there is so much emphasis on the inner-working of zombies in this universe and you can’t carry the entire film on a narration, a ton of the performances rests on the subtlety of facial expressions and body language. Nicholas Hoult magically captures the sense of an undead monster and the very human awkwardness of falling for someone equally well. Even in the sole scene where R embraces the ferocity of zombie hunger Nick puts his whole (mostly) undead heart into it. John Malkovich as the human resistance leader and Julie’s father does admirably, but the role itself is pretty thin. The whole misunderstood Dad who lost his wife has been done to death but despite this, Malkovich doesn’t miss a beat and infuses the character with his own style. And while you might be expecting Corddry to be the shock factor dropping funny one-liners, he shows a lot of restraint and while he’s certainly got some funny lines, they never steal the show and more importantly he shows more emotional range in a couple of pivotal scenes.
Also working to Warm Bodies favor is a razor-sharp focus on what’s important and complete dismissal of what isn’t.
Why are the bonies so fast? How did the outbreak start? Honestly? Who cares? It’s this understanding of good storytelling that keeps Warm Bodies from dragging and lets it weigh in at just past the 90-minute mark. This keeps it more than digestible and interesting and while a lot of extreme camera trickery could’ve been used to up the action, instead you’ll find a range of good old fashioned solid composition and well executed editing.
In many ways Warm Bodies is a total bait-and-switch. Going in you’re expecting a hilarious romp as the possibilities for above-average intelligence zombie are limitless. But, instead, humor is a delicate garnish for a more touching story. How much it succeeds is open to some debate, but show me another zombie film that even sniffs in the general direction of ‘uplifting’ and you’ll get some sense of what a rare treat Warm Bodies is.
It may not be entirely what you were expecting, but bold risks and a competent cast leave it fresher than a rotting corpse ought rightly be.
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