Ah, the zombie apocalypse. It has become its own genre in American pop culture. How many books and films have been written and produced about people trying to survive in a post-zombie-apocalyptic world? Countless stories have been told, most of them dramatic, many action-packed, some with social statements woven in and others with comedy interspersed. Which got me thinking that pretty much everything that could be done with the zombie genre has been done. And then came along Warm Bodies. And I realized that just because I couldn’t imagine anything new to bring to the genre, that certainly doesn’t mean that no one else could.
Warm Bodies isn’t all that original a story when compared to, say, any typical romantic comedy. What sets it apart is that it combines the zombie genre with the romantic comedy genre – two seemingly incompatible kinds of stories – and it does it, somehow, well. The film is narrated by a fellow whose name, he thinks, begins with the letter R. Beyond that, he can’t remember. Because, you see, at some point prior to the beginning of the story, R was bitten and infected and turned into a zombie. Yes, the zombie apocalypse arrived, infecting millions, killing millions of others and changing the landscape of human society and relationships as we know it. The initial wave of zombies created by whatever unnamed cause are completely and utterly lost to it, eventually becoming little more than skeletons incapable of any thought or drive beyond hunting and seeking food in the form of human flesh. But some of the folks who are bitten later, such as our main protagonist R, manage to retain some small hint of cognition, some tiny remnant of their former human selves. In search of food, R encounters Julie, an uninfected human and daughter of the leader of the community of remaining unscathed survivors. For reasons he doesn’t understand, he saves Julie from other zombies rather than eating her himself and develops, well, a sort of crush on her.
And here’s the thing. As a scientist who has studied infectious epidemics, it almost makes sense. Because there is just the smallest hint of truth in the very basic foundation of it. You see, the thing that makes a novel infectious agent (virus, bacteria, etc.) so potentially lethal to humans isn’t just related to that particular agent’s ability to cause disease – its newness makes it cause a worse disease. The reason being that our imperfect bodies have much more trouble fighting off something they’ve never seen before. Our immune systems are more easily overtaken by a microbe the first time it encounters it. This has happened throughout history with the influenza virus, smallpox, measles, pertussis (which causes whooping cough) and countless others. The second and third waves of people to encounter these organisms fare better. Not that there are no casualties, but they tend to occur in smaller numbers than their predecessors. Warm Bodies plays on this phenomenon to create a particular kind of zombie – the kind that isn’t entirely overtaken by whatever virus or pathogen led to its becoming a zombie. The first wave of people to become infected with the zombie disease is ruined by it. They lose every shred of their humanity, all memory, their capacity for emotion and any instinct other than hunger. After some unspecified length of time, newly infected people, while still turning into flesh-eating zombies, form a bit of resistance. They retain the minutest amount of cognitive thought and can even mutter monosyllabic words. This resistance is encouraged by emotion (love, especially) and has the potential to “cure” the zombie of its being a zombie and return it to a human state of being.
Author Isaac Marion wrote the book on which screenwriter/director Jonathan Levine based the movie and though I haven’t read the novel, I have heard that the meat of the story is the same. The flick is silly and light-hearted, not to be taken too seriously, and for the most part, it works, at least in part due to the performances from its two lead actors, Nicholas Hoult as the zombie, R, and Teresa Palmer as the girl who inspires his heart to beat again, Julie. Hoult and Palmer play their respective roles with surprising charm and their chemistry together really sells it, making it almost believable that the spark between them is powerful enough to triumph over the zombie plague. John Malkovich adequately plays the part of Julie’s father and leader of the small army of remaining people trying to salvage what they can of the pre-zombie world, and Rob Corddry, who plays M, a kind of friend of R’s who is inspired by the bond that develops between R and Julie, is delightfully funny. Dave Franco and Analeigh Tipton also offer charming side characters who get more than a few laughs.
What makes Warm Bodies even easier to enjoy is the certain fact that it never takes itself too seriously. There are sober, heartfelt moments that touch places of real emotion but the film doesn’t try too hard to make you cry. Neither does it make any attempt at social commentary or satire, nor aspire to be an outright comedy. Instead, it is a thoroughly enjoyable and harmonious blend of love story and light comedy that just happens to be set against the backdrop of the zombie plague.
Can’t wait to see what else they can do with this genre.