Munchies on his mind

Toss­ing out the un­dead playbook, Warm Bod­ies is a fun YA zom­rom­com, writes Don­ald Clarke

The Irish Times - Friday - The Ticket - - REVIEWS -

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

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