The "Snuggie" Of Zombie Pictures

“Warm Bodies” is that kid who shows up on the first day of school wearing clothes that were popular a few years ago, and he absolutely can’t wait to show off his new duds to anyone and everyone that will talk to him. We’re not looking at a jean shorts-type lapse in judgment here, but late to the party is late to the party. No matter the response of his classmates, he’s certain of his newfound coolness and he’s not afraid to show it. “Warm Bodies” is riding the very tail end of the zombie renaissance, a wave that crested years ago, and the film’s sense of self-awareness begins and ends in the middle distance. Its social commentary never eclipses that of the brilliant “Shaun Of The Dead,” its romance is ineffectual at best, unpleasant at worst, and its sense of humor is woefully unrefined. This makes for a wildly uneven experience. It’s never terrible, but it’s not any good.

If the phrase “hipster zombie” sounds like your worst nightmare, run. Run in the opposite direction of any theater showing this film. Nicholas Hoult (from “About A Boy”) plays R, a twenty-something zombie with an inexplicably high level of cognitive activity (relayed via voiceover) who can’t seem to talk, but collects and enjoys vinyl records. It’s not quite as noxious as it sounds, but much of the picture plays like an extended music video. Writer-director Jonathan Levine uses every excuse in the book to let his characters sit around and listen to music. From Springsteen to M83, it’s all good stuff, but haphazardly calling on “Hungry Heart” to grab the audience’s attention doesn’t exactly indicate confidence in the narrative.

The story follows R’s transformation from zombie back to fully functioning human thanks to, uh, love, a love that’s inexplicably returned by R’s crush, Julie (Teresa Palmer). You see, R kills Julie’s boyfriend (Dave Franco) and eats his brains, also ingesting his memories, or so we’re told. Upon seeing Julie, R rescues her from another group of zombies and falls in love with her, through their interactions and his newfound memories from those brains he just ate. Romantic, right? You’d think Julie wouldn’t handle that so well, but she’s actually pretty cool with it!

Rob Corddry plays R’s best zombie friend, M, and he absolutely runs (lurches) away with the entire movie. Seeing the two hold entire conversations through grunts and nods is pretty amusing, and when it comes time to fight off the most evil of zombies, the skeletal “Boneys,” Corddry takes charge of the film and seems to revel in it. He drops the film’s lone f-bomb with total delight, as if he’s putting everyone else on his back and willing his way into a better movie. Unfortunately, John Malkovich is completely wasted here as Julie’s militant father and it’s not until late in the film that we see what a missed opportunity the entire venture is. There’s a well-crafted balcony scene that finally allows us to put two and two together – R and Julie… a zombie version of “Romeo And Juliet!” – but nothing before or after it does anything interesting with that conceit.

Jonathan Levine directed the wonderful “50/50,” so it’s even more disappointing that “Warm Bodies” is so unsure of itself. At its most stylish, the picture is worth taking in – the music video vibe overwhelms at times – but then it snaps out of its trance with nothing in particular to say. If the last decade hadn’t been overstuffed with zombie films, books, and TV shows, I might have had a little more patience for the style over substance approach here, but it’s just too little, too late. It’s gross rather than engrossing, but its biggest flaw is the flimsiness of the story. I can’t say if the source material (a book by the same name) is as vacuous as Levine’s adaptation, but I certainly wasn’t inspired to pick up the novel anytime soon.

-J. Olson

Rating: ★★ 1/2 out of ★★★★★ (Mediocre)

Release Date: February 1, 2013
Studio: Summit Entertainment
Director: Jonathan Levine
Screenwriter: Jonathan Levine
Starring: Nicholas Hoult, Teresa Palmer, Rob Corddry, John Malkovich, Analeigh Tipton, Dave Franco, Cory Hardrict
MPAA Rating: PG-13 (for zombie violence and some language)