R (Nicholas Hoult) is a zombie. He shuffles, he grunts, he is not particularly motivated by anything except hunger, and he’s even conflicted about his need to kill others in order to eat. Told from his perspective via voiceover, there is a surprising amount of humor and humanity to be found among this world’s living dead. What do zombies want most? To connect with others, naturally. With wistful but resigned monologues, we are shown around R’s decrepit world without being given any explanation as to how it got that way. One of the film’s stronger elements is the “flashbacks” that melt seamlessly over R’s bleak reality, providing a stark comparison to how the world used to be (at least from his romanticized view of things). R spends his time imagining what people used to be; he longs for a time when people just “enjoyed one another’s company.” Of course, he’s remembering a rosier version of the “the good old days” – not unlike how this generation often forgets to include rampant racism, violence, political scandal, and economic trouble when pining for the 50’s, 60’s or 70’s. Besides being a romantic-comedy-zombie movie, the film (along with the novel by Isaac Marion from which it takes its name) function as a sort of clumsy allegory for the modern age: you see, we’re all just technology-addled zombies waiting for someone to shake us out of our distracting routines.
Despite being overly obvious, the theme worked best for the film when it was allowed to simply exist in the background. During a hunting expedition, R and his shuffling pals encounter a group of young humans and proceed to eat most of them. The film does not shy away from as much gore as it can squeeze out of its PG-13 rating, and the story is better for it. R happens to eat the brains of a boy named Perry (Dave Franco, in one of his most decent roles), which allows him to access Perry’s memories – a sort of catharsis and connection to any vestigial human feeling (a particular detail that brought to mind an excellent episode of Fringe with a similar plot device.) R then spots Julie (Teresa Palmer), Perry’s girlfriend, and is instantly drawn to her. He decides to save her rather than eat her (or allow the others to do so) by masking her scent with zombie juice and sneaking her back to his abandoned airplane/home. The two cautiously bond. Slowly, surprisingly, R begins to experience small signs of life.
Though there are questionable motives and implications for R and Julie’s relationship, Levine manages to keep the story just on this side of creepy. He works to give R a convincing balance of predator and human, needing both elements for any stakes to exist at all. He manages it best in the early parts of the film where R’s only hint at rational thought is via voiceover; externally, R is a truly terrifying, unquestionable zombie. Enough credit can’t go to Hoult who not only had to play a zombie-turned-human (rather than the other way around), but to do it in a PG-13 comedy. Teresa Palmer was adequate but somewhat forgettable after her initial kickass introduction, though the entire movie suffered from a lack of focus in the second half. Bright spots were Analeigh Tipton’s energetic presence; an underutilized John Malkovich; and a decidedly sweet Shakespearian moment between the two leads.
The major flaw with this film is that it began to take its own message too seriously towards the end. Levine introduced a thinly-drawn villain who failed to create believable tension when leaned on more heavily (undoubtedly a case of book-to-script details being cut), resulting in a somewhat cartoonish conclusion. The moment the film asked to be taken seriously in its logistics, annoying inconsistencies (like how R muses at one point, "God, we move slow... this could take a while," but later he and Julie face a group who sprint towards them) become problematic plot holes. The real hook is the exploration of the inner lives of zombies; when that motif was sidelined in favor of a more traditional action-based conflict, the film suffered because it lacked the budget, gravitas, and set up to pull it off.
Despite its flaws, however, Hoult’s presence on screen is always enjoyable and sometimes magnetic; he carried this film. Levine’s earnest directing style and wry sense of humor likewise elevated what could have been a very mediocre movie into a gem worth seeing. It’s not great filmmaking, but its fun and satisfying if you squint your eyes a little to let the rough edges blur.
Not convinced? Check out the first four minutes below for a good preview of what the film has going for it. Regardless of what you think of Warm Bodies, definitely see Jonathan Levine's first two (stronger) films: The Wackness and 50/50.