Munchies on his mind
Tossing out the undead playbook, Warm Bodies is a fun YA zomromcom, writes Donald Clarke
It seems like an awfully long time since zombies – not to mention vampires – existed only at the outré fringes of popular entertainment. When, some 45 years ago, George Romero directed Night of the Living Dead, he didn’t even know he was making a “zombie” film.
In the new century, the walking dead (thanks, in part, to The Walking Dead) have become more conspicuous than earlier staples such as private investigators, brave cowboys or charming pirates. They are in danger of becoming just a little cuddly.
Isaac Marion’s novel Warm Bodies did for those beasts what Twilight did for vampires. If Jonathan Levine’s fitfully successful film translation is any guide, the book sought to find the soulful teenager in the flesh-hungry human remnant. Experienced horror enthusiasts will scratch their skulls bloody as they puzzle through the genre-betraying inconsistencies. He what . . . ? But how do they . . . ? Where does . . . ? But the film has just enough gooey charm to make up for its infelicitous turns.
Nicholas Hoult plays a former youth, now an undead cannibal, named R (standing, perhaps, for “Robert Pattinson was unavailable”). We first meet him wandering through an abandoned airport. He can only grunt and munch, but his voiceover has all the mournful articulacy of, well, the vampires’ musings in another franchise.
R talks us through the privations of the zombie lifestyle. A certain freedom has been gained. But the food isn’t so great and the hours are exhausting.
Elsewhere, pale but still quick Julie (perky Teresa Palmer) lives an unsatisfactory life behind the walls of a gloomily besieged city. Traumatised by the recent consumption of his wife, Julie’s father (John Malkovich on cruise control), the city’s apparent figurehead, devotes his hours to plotting elimination of the zombie threat.
One fateful day, Julie embarks on a food-gathering raid into occupied territory. The zombies dispatch her current lover (Dave “least annoying of the Franco brothers” Franco), but R takes pity upon the girl and the two set out on an unlikely odyssey through annihilated suburbs.
Not being all that bright, this writer failed to spot the prominent allusions to Romeo and Juliet (check out the character’s names) until Levine – best known for the interesting 50/50 – dispenses with coyness and actually stages a balcony sequence.
It’s a nice conceit: Malkovich is a plausible Lord Capulet; Julie has the appropriate vivacity; R is certainly sufficiently introspective.
Warm Bodies is also to be recommended for a satisfactory blend of absurdity and off-centre romance. The misleading poster points us towards Shaun of the Dead larks, but, with its sepulchral lighting and low-key acting, Warm Bodies is often impressively grim and properly horrifying (after a 12A fashion). Montreal effectively impersonates a deadened wasteland.
Sadly, the picture can’t get to grips with the novel’s attitude towards the lumbering dead. Poor Hoult is saddled with a near-impossible task. In the opening sequence – despite that disconcerting voiceover – we are persuaded that the zombies are every bit as unthinking as Romero’s organic automatons. Occasional, crude bursts of language emerge, but, for the most part, humanity remains buried deep within wads of empty brutality.
When R falls for Julie, however, the film seems to suggest that the undead, despite all that chewing of innards, are just misunderstood malcontents in Marilyn Manson’s latest cosmetics line. A few excuses are offered: eating brains passes on the memories of the unwilling donor; maybe they are all just getting better.
It doesn’t make sense. Some of the time Hoult is playing a classic monster. Some of the time he appears to be in a gloomier version of Skins.
Still, the kids seem to like the thing. Odd times.
Learning from the masters: Nicholas Hoult as a teen zombie