I have to admit, I was a bit chagrined yesterday when voters in the poll selected Warm Bodies as the film to review this weekend. I’ve never been a big fan of the zombie genre, although I thought Zombieland was a brilliant and funny deconstruction of it. (I even made Tina Korbe and Guy Benson sit through it in Ames, Iowa in August 2011.) However, Warm Bodies turns out to be much more than a zombie movie or even a deconstruction of the genre. If you watch carefully, you realize it’s not about zombies at all, but redemption.
The film starts off in the same kind of hip, ironic vein as Zombieland as we follow R (Nicholas Hoult, X-Men: First Class, About a Boy) on a typical day in the airport, which he and other zombies have haunted since a medical apocalypse separated humans, zombies, and even lower creatures called Bonies who have entirely given into their sickness. The zombies sleepwalk through each day, mostly unable to communicate (except internally, as Hoult provides narration throughout the movie). On a raid in the city, R eats the brain of a young man on a mission from a walled-in city of humans, absorbing his memories. When he sees the young man’s girlfriend, Julie (Teresa Palmer, I Am Number Four, Wish You Were Here), R rescues her rather than eats her, but isn’t quite sure why. Could this moment be the hinge in which humanity reunites — or is R about to have his dead heart broken?
It’s very easy to enjoy this film on its superficial level, as an often-humorous tale of zombies looking for love in all the wrong places, but that misses its spiritual core. And that is really the heart of the film, both literally in several sequences and figuratively.
Note: Mild spoilers below.
The key moment in the film, in which its theme is ultimately revealed, takes place in a dream sequence about halfway through — although, to be honest, the direction of the film becomes apparent rather early. Zombies don’t dream, but as R begins to find love with Julie, and as Julie responds in friendship, it creates hope, and he starts transforming slowly back to human. R comes across Julie talking to her friend and her dead boyfriend in his first dream, and that Julie wants to save the world by “exhuming” the zombies.
It’s at this moment that the film’s core becomes clear, and not with a great deal of subtlety, either. It’s an analogy for sin, grace, and redemption — and not just for the sinners. Some of the zombies have become so bereft of hope that they became unredeemable — the Bonies — and the others are so lost that they can’t communicate with each other and end up preying on the humans when they find them, just to get a “taste” of human contact. The humans who have not become infected have retreated behind high walls and defend themselves from any contact with the zombies/sinners, and will eventually get overwhelmed by the growing population of zombies, thus having little hope, either. The only way that the humans and zombies can save each other is to connect — and when R and Julie do, it sets off a chain reaction.
Warm Bodies doesn’t give this a religious frame, which is probably for the best given Hollywood’s handling of religion in general, but anyone of faith will see the underlying message. Neither the faithful nor the sinners can survive without hope and love, and without expressing it to each other. Ultimately, humanity cannot be saved by pitched battles or by hiding behind walls, but by one act of love and charity at a time. And the power of just one act of love, in this case the sight of the two main characters holding hands, can change the world.
This isn’t a teenage zombie romance comedy. It’s much deeper, and much more rewarding, if very quirky. In the end, it’s almost the antithesis of a zombie film, which usually have unrelenting hopelessness as a theme.
The cast is excellent, especially John Malkovich, whose role as the leader of the humans could easily have been a cardboard-cutout character. The casting of an actor of Malkovich’s subtlety is no accident. Rob Corddry (What Happens In Vegas) gives the best performance I’ve seen him give as M, R’s “best friend” in the zombie world. Their idea of a conversation in the beginning of the film will remind many women of how male friends converse in the real world, by the way. Analeigh Tipton steals a couple of scenes as Julie’s friend Nora, and becomes more integral to the plot and theme near the end.
Whether you’re interested in the deeper message or just looking for a few laughs, I’d highly recommend Warm Bodies. It has a PG-13 rating for “zombie violence,” and there are some scenes that will bother the very squeamish. Most teenagers will be able to handle it.
Update: Don’t miss my friend John Hanlon’s review. He calls it “surprisingly funny,” which is absolutely true and makes it a fun watch even for those who aren’t interested in the deeper themes.