Friday, February 08, 2013

'Warm Bodies' a fresh, funny and sweet zombie film

Zombies are considered mindless killing machines, but "Warm Bodies" starts with an intriguing premise: What if they weren't so mindless? What if they were aware of their state, but couldn't help themselves? What if they could fall in love?

Writer/director Jonathan Levine, adapting Isaac Marion's novel, flips the perspective of the traditional zombie film from human to zombie. We get to hear the surprisingly lucid thoughts of a zombie named R (Nicholas Hoult).

Hoult, who is in nearly every scene, is a crucial to the success of the film. He has an inherently likable screen presence and his nuanced, largely silent performance is entirely engaging. Hoult's facial expressions and body language let you know exactly what R is thinking and feeling even without the voice-over narration.

R is desperate to connect. Much like Louis in "Interview with the Vampire" was a vampire with a soul, R is a zombie with a soul. He collects items that remind him of his past life and brings them to the home he has built for himself in an airplane. He has a shockingly good vinyl collection and enjoys listening to John Waite's "Missing You."

Occasionally, R has "almost conversations" with M (Rob Corddry) and ventures into the city to find potential human victims. He'll eat anything with a pulse, but is "conflicted about it."

The remains of humanity have walled themselves off, but venture into zombie territory for supplies. This is how R meets Julie (Teresa Palmer) who stirs something in him that may cure his undead state. He saves Julie and brings her back to his pad. Julie, unexpectedly, develops feels for R and their budding love begins to have a positive effect on other zombies.

Zombie purists may scoff at the idea of a thinking and feeling zombie, but there is precedent within the genre to delve into these ideas. George Romero, who created the modern film zombie in "Night of the Living Dead," explored ideas of zombies having muscle memory of their past lives and even being able to learn in "Dawn of the Dead," "Day of the Dead" and "Land of the Dead."

The premise may also lead many to dismiss the film as another "Twilight," but, aside from having a human and a supernatural being fall in love, the films have little in common. In the "Twilight" films the characters are brooding and intense and there is no joy in the relationship between Bella and Edward. The characters in "Warm Bodies," both living and dead, are far more lively than the bland and stiffly acted characters of the "Twilight" series.

One of the pleasures of "Warm Bodies" is that there is playfulness, sweetness and energy in the way Hoult and Palmer interact that feels emotionally honest. Their connection seems authentic.

"Warm Bodies" is also distinguished by a sly sense of humor, particularly in R's observations on what it is like to be a zombie.

Corddry is a hilarious scene stealer giving a more subtle performance than he has given in past in such films as "Hot Tub Time Machine" and during his time on "The Daily Show." His timing is impeccable, especially in an exchange with R in which he translates for a band of non-speaking zombies.

Analeigh Tipton, as Julie's best friend, provides a dry, cynical sense of humor to the film. Tipton has an effective fast, dry line delivery that stands out most when she first meets R and throws a barrage of questions at him.

While the film is often very funny, it doesn't go completely over into parody. On several occasions, Levine, creates a feeling of dread and suspense particularly in regards to the "bonies," zombies who are beyond help. He establishes a bleak world and then introduces hope into it in the form of R and Julie.

There is also a thoughtfulness to the film including a commentary on the way humanity is so hooked into technology that we are essentially already zombies.

Perhaps most importantly, the film has a lot of heart with the main theme being the remarkable healing power of love. Even Corddry has an affecting moment in which he remembers a lost love.

"Warm Bodies" offers a refreshing twist on a familiar genre. It is a film that is equal parts funny, frightening and, yes, truly romantic.

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