There’s no shortage of books out these days that amount to horror rewrites of classic literature; the most famous probably being Pride and Prejudice and Zombies. It’s a pretty good source of offbeat genre movie premises, like mashing up history with the undead in Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter. So it’s only natural to go into Warm Bodies expecting a similarly fluffy blending of Dawn of the Dead with Romeo and Juliet, good for a few laughs while passing a couple of hours. And yet, there is much more underneath the surface, including one of the most original takes I’ve seen in years on a genre that’s already bursting with symbolism.
So, there’s been a zombie apocalypse. But we’re going to start out by adopting an unusual point of view: that of one particular zombie (Nicholas Hoult). He can’t really talk, but he’s got an interior monologue that may resemble the self-conscious thoughts of any late-adolescent male who eats people and can’t remember his name past “R”. And he’s not a bad guy, really, as he operates on autopilot, shambling around the abandoned Montréal-Mirabel airport with a few thousand other zombies, collecting old vinyl, sunglasses, and other random stuff in a disused jetliner. He’s even got a “best friend” (Rob Corddry), with whom conversations generally extend to “hungry”. This may be a statement or a question; it’s not clear.
There are two different kinds of undead: those like R the remaining humans call “corpses”; after long enough they drift further away from humanity, sloughing off their skin to become “skeletons”, or “boneys”, as R calls them. Those guys will eat anything with a heartbeat, without even the compunction that R still has. Obviously, the humans hate and fear both of them.
Speaking of whom, those living people remaining in Montréal have constructed a huge wall around the city core, inside which they live a militarized life under the command of Corporal Grigio (John Malkovich). They can’t quite sustain themselves, which means they need to send out scavenging parties to find medicine and supplies.
And it’s one of these parties that encounters R and a group of other corpses. R meets Julie (Teresa Palmer), Grigio’s daughter, and something happens. He decides to protect her instead of eating her, and things starts to change.
The boneys may be faster and more vicious, but the corpses are slow zombies in the classic George Romero vein. And as in Dawn of the Dead, zombies are a not-so-veiled reference to consumerism. But it’s more than that: these zombies are particularly about the disconnection, disaffection, and alienation that grows out of consumerism. Screenwriter and director Jonathan Levine is not exactly subtle when he suggests that we humans already act like zombies to an alarming degree.
And what makes it easy to stay like this is when entrenched interests draw hard lines between Us and Them, like modern-day Montagues and Capulets. We wall ourselves off in our own insular worlds, forever guarded against the Others who we convince ourselves are out to get us, though they may not really be so different. That is, until they ossify and do set out to get us.
But there is hope, and that hope lies in real, honest human contact — the very thing whose absence defines both these zombies and those of us who act like them. Levine and Isaac Marion, who wrote the original novel, not only find the path leading from Romero’s slow zombies to the fast ones in Zack Snyder and James Gunn’s 2004 remake of Dawn of the Dead, they offer a rebuttal to both.
Consumerism is not the root cause of social breakdown, and it need not lead inexorably to revolt and anarchy from the have-nots. The real problem is an internalized sense of fear and shame over being different or misunderstood, and it can be overcome with empathy, compassion, and love.
Worth It: yes.
Bechdel Test: it’s sort of on the fence, but I’m going to say it doesn’t quite pass.