I firmly believe that if you give this zombie rom-com a shot, you'll really like it. I want to be perfectly clear about that up front, because I'm genuinely surprised how many people are inflexible when it comes to zombie films. There is no point in making zombie movie after zombie movie (or TV series) if you aren't going to mix things up within a certain framework established in George Romero's original NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD. That groundbreaking film is a perfect jumping off point, but there's room for variety and even improvement.
The makers of WARM BODIES are perfectly aware that the premise (from Isaac Marion's novel) of a zombie and human falling in love is preposterous, but writer-director Jonathan Levine (THE WACKNESS, 50/50) doesn't let that keep him from taking the story and the romance seriously. He's committed to making us believe in this relationship—one that leads to a potential cure for being undead. Borrowing heavily from the plot of Romeo and Juliet (right down to the names of the lead characters—R played by Nicholas Hoult and Teresa Palmer's Julie), WARM BODIES is told to us from R's point of view, complete with narration by Hoult (ABOUT A BOY, X-MEN: FIRST CLASS) that sets up just how much he remembers from his pre-zombie life (not much), how he communicates with his best zombie friend M (Rob Corddry), and how the world of zombies and humans is divided.
R's narration is just the right balance of snarky and informative, and we quickly learn that a few zombies can actually manage words, and there are levels of zombie-dom, including the skin-and-bones death machines known as "bonies," who will eat anything with a heartbeat. We find out that R has ambition; he wants to be a better class of zombie that isn't all about eating humans. He listens to classic rock on vinyl in an abandoned airplane (he pretty much spends most of his time wandering around an abandoned airport).
We also meet Julie, who has lived her entire life under these conditions. Her father (John Malkovich doing the paramilitary thing) is the head of a population of humans fortified against zombies, and she sometimes goes out of the fortress with other humans for medical supply runs. During one such run, her party is attacked by zombies, including R, who eats the brains of Julie's sort-of boyfriend (Dave Franco)—apparently when zombies eat brains they absorb the memories of that person. He takes an injured Julie back to his plane, he says to protect her. And the courtship begins. As he spends more time with her, his speech improves, color returns to his face, and he's able to walk less like a zombie. And it's soon revealed that his heart begins beating again, thus indicating that zombies might be cured by love. Awwwww.
It sounds silly, I know, but Levine is smart enough to not let things get dumb while taking full advantage of the winning chemistry between the leads. The films becomes less about zombies and more about a young man who doesn't know how to talk around girls. Sure the zombie stuff stays strong, especially when the airport zombies start to organize and begin a raid on the human compound. But Julie manages to get R in front of her father in hopes of convincing him that the zombies are not all bad. I especially liked Julie's best friend Nora (Analeigh Tipton), who grills the transforming zombie about his intention toward her friend. Tipton continues to show some of the great comic timing she displayed in CRAZY, STUPID, LOVE.
Wisely, Levine doesn't lean too hard on the comedy, instead relying on the relationship and action to lead the charge. Hoult is stellar as he gradually (almost frustratingly) allows himself to become more human from scene to scene. His inability to communicate as much as he'd like and occasional desire to, you know, eat people are perfectly realized as both sources of humor and pity. We're rooting for him to get better faster, and when Julie and Nora give him a "human makeover" so he can walk around their camp undetected, we're excited that he's almost there.
I wish Malkovich's character had been a little more fleshed out and just in the film more, but I think that about him in just about every movie. WARM BODIES is sweet and funny, and I think might mark the first zombie movie you can take your parents to (or parents could take their older kids to). That might negate the point of a zombie movie, but I fell for these characters and their dilemma.