By Michael S. Goldberger
Special to the Observer
“To be dead…to be really dead, is…glorious!” Thus spake Count Dracula in the 1931 horror classic that bears his name. R, however, the male protagonist played by Nicholas Hoult in director Jonathan Levine’s “Warm Bodies,” would beg to differ. But then, the good count is a vampire, whereas our walking-grunting corpse is a card-carrying zombie.
Indeed, R, who can’t remember the name he went by before he left this life, isn’t happy with his purgatorial status. He also isn’t too fond of the insatiable hunger that forces him to murder and eat the brains of whoever falls within his grasp. It’s hardly something your skittish aunt Tillie would like, particularly the early and very bloody expository scenes.
Truth is, trying to figure just who exactly the filmmaker thought his audience would be causes one to consider the absurdity of giving this movie any truly serious scrutinization. Common sense would dictate that intelligent people, especially, could better serve the commonweal by putting their efforts into contemplating the meaning of life…not death.
As for the great unwashed, who don’t really give too much thought to where they get their bread (read: nachos) and circus, this might serve as a remedial lesson in variations on a theme. Fact is, it’s the Romeo and Juliet tale, and blatantly so, except instead of two very young and alive paramours, one of these star-crossed lovers is beginning to rot.
Act # 1, scene #1: Meet R, the narrator of our tale, who regales us with the ins and outs of his nether life, a situation resulting from an unspecified catastrophe that caused the zombie epidemic of which he is part and parcel. He is the undead philosopher, betwixt and between realities, missing the good life and feeling guilty about his dietary habits.
All the same, when he and his pals get a real hunger crave on, even a whole sack of White Castles or KFC’s Game Day Bucket won’t do. Nope, they’ve got to head for the city, beyond the protective wall, where the live people live. And thus it is on one of these epicurean adventures that R meets the beauty that is to die for, in a manner of speaking.
Of course there are complications that make the encounter a sticky wicket, not the least of which is the fact that R immediately eliminates the competition by dispatching and imbibing Julie’s boyfriend. And if that isn’t ghoulish enough for you, kindly note that feasting on the former beau’s brain, and thus reading his memories, kindles his ardor.
Adding to the taboo aspects of the ensuing affaire de coeur, heartthrob Julie, portrayed by the comely Teresa Palmer, is the daughter of Grigio, a no-nonsense, camo-wearing militarist in charge of finding and slaughtering zombies. Played by John Malkovich, doubtless he believes that the only good zombie is a completely dead zombie.
Confiding in her best pal, Nora (Analeigh Tipton), an aspiring nurse (continuing the Romeo & Juliet allusions), Julie tells of her strange interlude and resultant fascination for R. Girlfriend, trying to be understanding but nonetheless incredulous, responds, “Look, I know trying to find a nice guy is hard, what with the apocalypse and everything, but…”
Such bits of comedy relief mixed with sheer horror, a splatter of melodrama and a bathetic moral lesson or two cause unevenness and give the film an identity crisis that only an indiscriminate teen-ager with way too much spare time could love. Still, romance is at the heart of it all, and suckers for said emotion can’t help but root for the pair.
I mean, talk about opposites attracting. You can’t be too much more opposed than the quick and the dead. Thus, its tongue implanted in cheek, “Warm Bodies” evinces an inherent running gag, albeit one that can’t successfully support an entire film. Naturally, or rather, unnaturally, the notion that true love transcends mortality itself has its appeal.
Less interesting but par for the course in any movie destined for mass consumption at the Multiplex, there are tumbrels of random action and lots of killing, if in fact dispatching a zombie is killing. So it behooves to note the different levels of butchery: Zombies kill people; people kill zombies; zombies kill boneys; and boneys kill just about everything.
For all the story’s notions of tolerance, boneys are where we draw the line. It’s OK to hate these murderous, skeleton carnivores. Poor devils anyway…they’re beyond hope, as is this movie’s chances of winning any serious accolades. Only zombie aficionados and folks curious to see how the other half doesn’t live could cuddle up to “Warm Bodies.”
“Warm Bodies,” rated PG-13, is a Summit Entertainment release directed by Jonathan Levine and stars Nicolas Hoult, Teresa Palmer and John Malkovich. Running time: 98 minutes