If you ever wanted to see a movie that mixed elements of 500 Days of Summer with The Walking Dead, Warm Bodies is probably the closest we're ever going to get. I've been following this film for a while now, having read and loved Isaac Marion's novel in 2011, plus I'm a huge fan of the director Jonathan Levine (I attended the Los Angeles Film Festival premiere of his film The Wackness, in 2008), and of the movie's dreamy star Nicholas Hoult (A Single Man). But the film was getting "dumped" in early February, and it was rated PG-13, which for an apocalyptic zombie movie seemed a little head-scratching. Did the film live up to the promise of the terrific novel? I'm pleased to announce... yes!
Watching the movie play out, I realized how disastrous this balancing trick could have gone. Most know director Levine's work from The Wackness, and last year's terrific cancer 'comedy' 50/50, but he also has horror chops, with his little-seen debut All the Boys Love Mandy Lane, from 2006. He was probably one of the few directors to pull this one off. The trailers made it look more like a romantic comedy than a horror film, so I was pleased to see that, no, there's actually a lot of action and terror in the second half, and the whole thing isn't just the lead zombie winking at the audience all the way through. Nicholas Hoult plays R, a young, sensitive member of the undead who falls for a human girl Julie (Teresa Palmer, a great find) and does everything in his power to keep her safe from the other creatures who want to feast on her flesh. Along the way, they encounter Julie's father (John Malkovich), a general who doesn't take too kindly to his daughter hanging around a zombie, and Bonies, undead creatures that have been stripped of all their human traits and are only out for blood.
The zombie genre has been done to death, but Warm Bodies is an original. It's funny, but not quite Shaun of the Dead funny. It has a lot of action and suspense, but Dawn of the Dead it isn't, either. It finds this happy medium in between, with the narrator R pulling us into the narrative with great ease and keeping us glues to the screen for a very fast 90 minutes. Levine hasn't made a bad movie yet, and one thing he does really well is casting the right actors in the leads. Hoult is perfect for R (and not to mention yummy, even as a zombie!). He's just gross enough to pass for a member of the undead, but still handsome and charismatic enough for the audience to buy that a human girl could come to care for him. And his dry humor in the narration throughout is just fantastic, with Levine successfully bringing much of Marion's witty prose to the screen. This is also the first time I've seen Teresa Palmer in a film, and, while she resembles Kristen Stewart maybe a little too much for comfort, she makes the role of Julie her own, giving the character just the right amount of fear when necessary and shades of lightness in the later, more romantic scenes. Malkovich can play a role like this one in his sleep, but he does a fine job. And Analeigh Tipton is a welcome addition as Nora.
If there's anything negative to say about the film, it's that it plays out almost a little too safe. The material has all been censored a little bit to get to that PG-13 rating, to appeal to the core teen audience who probably made up most of the crowds over its opening weekend. I enjoyed Warm Bodies, but I almost would have preferred an R-rated version, with a harder edge, with higher stakes, a little more terror, and an ending that really gets you thinking there's no way in hell that R and Julie will end up together. The book is a little better because it gets your pulse racing a little more, even while it's making you laugh. The film is a little watered down for my taste, but this probably won't be an issue for most of the younger viewers. We can't live in a perfect world, and the only way for this film to get funding was probably with a guaranteed PG-13 rating, I guess. I just sensed, especially in the second half, a truly great film itching to break out of merely a good one.
The film, however, is proof that the first couple months of the year doesn't have to be a studio dumping ground for lame remakes and retreads. Warm Bodies is one of the more alive horror films I've seen in awhile (no pun intended!), giving a unique take on a genre we all know and love. And I just heard Isaac Marion is writing a sequel to his book! Could we be seeing R and Julie in further screen adventures? In the right hands, I'd love to see where the characters go from here. This is the anti-Twilight, a paranormal love story told with wit and originality, and respect for its audience. Warm Bodies was worth the wait!