Movie: Warm Bodies; Director: Jonathan Levine; Production company: Lionsgate Films; Rating: PG-13; My finding: Four out of five stars.
"Warm Bodies" will probably be the best film I'll see in 2013. Some people wait for Oscar bait at the end of the year, but those people will be missing the film that will probably be the purest form of cinema escapism and entertainment to be enjoyed this year.
I felt the same way with "The Cabin in the Woods" last year. There's just something about turning genre cliches and expectations on their heads to entertain. One critic has dismissed the film as "zom-rom-com," and that is exactly what the film is: a romantic comedy with zombies. And judging by its leading status at the box-office, that's exactly what people are wanting.
January is known as a "dumping grounds" for films studios were unsure of - the holdover failures that will try to capture some money after the "serious" films are all over and done with. Come the beginning of February, though, the new year has begun.
Except, in this case, the apocalypse came and went and it doesn't go explained. That's a strength of the film. We don't know why humans store themselves in a city subsection, protected by huge walls from the zombies who roam the earth feasting on brains, but they do and they've already adapted to the order and restrictions imposed by their leader, played by John Malkovich.
The wall means more, though, because this film is based loosely on Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet and the inexplicable hatred the families of the "star-crossed" lovers sustained to keep romance at bay. In this case, though, Julie (get it?) is alive and R. (get it?) is a "corpse," which is a term used to differentiate from the other type of zombies, the "bonies."
The differentiation is key.
Bonies are the zombies who gave up all hope, which is a totally new twist for zombiedom, and scraped their decaying skin off their bodies to take on the form of skeletal monsters, unencumbered by resemblance to humans.
"They don't bother us too much," R. says to explain the bonies who live in the large airport with him, "but they'll eat anything with a heartbeat."
Foreshadowing is beautiful. It's pitch-perfect and not used enough these days because most films trying to tell an original story throw classic methods of storytelling out the window to shock and awe in disparate storylines. Not so with "Warm Bodies." No, classic convention, all the way to R. narrating in voiceover as he stumbles around, abounds and the film is stronger for it.
His narration is witty and self-referential but he can't communicate physically. He and his "best friend" M. (Rob Corddry, playing deadpan perfectly) have "almost conversations" as they moan at each other. Still, there's an element to zombies that hasn't been introduced before now: They retain elements of their former life.
A corpse who was once a janitor in the airport still carries around his mop and ineffectively drags it across the floor, a TSA agent still raises his baton and swipes it against other corpses as they pass through the metal detector and M. puts up a hand in a familiar way of getting a bartender's attention as he sits at an airport bar.
Love conquers all, Hollywood has told us time and again, but it never told us that it could restart a long-dead heart and bring the dead back. R., though, is a different zombie. The bonies and he may both eat the brains of humans, but at least he feels "remorse" about it. His record collection, which is a phenomenal mix of folk records and '80s pop
songs, can attest to his differences, as can his various collections of memorabilia from the living that cramp the commercial airplane he lives in.
"You're a hoarder," Julie tells him after he takes her back among the dead, after refusing to eat her on a raid against the humans as they tried to recover pharmaceuticals for the compound. He had eaten the brains of her boyfriend, Perry (Dave Franco), which is the closest the zombies can come to dreaming. While eating the brains, memories from the deceased flood into their minds like a powerful psychedelic drug trip, shocked with fading neuron impulses. He saw their love and he wanted some of it for himself. He keeps the remainder of the brain to munch on when Julie's asleep.
Love makes us do stupid things, like bring a damsel in distress back to a zombie-infested area, finger-painting her face with rotting flesh so the sweet smell of life won't spot her out. It's "not safe," he grumbles. Still, he wishes he could stop being "weird," in voice-over, as he watches her sleep while he cannot.
She tries to escape, of course.
"Eat," growled M., as he pointed out that Julie is a human after R. had beaten him and other zombies to the ground so they wouldn't hurt her. "Eat," he pleaded.
Still, M. must come to his senses since his best friend and moaning partner has apparently chosen himself a mate.
It was seeing the pair hold hands that started all the heartbeats back up among the zombies as memories of their former lives flashed before their eyes.
Grigio, the leader of the humans and Julie's father, played by John Malkovich, is one stern and not understanding man. The two families, the living and the dead, can not co-relate because that is the way it is. There's a litany of past grievances torturing him, including the death of his wife at the mouths of zombies, that won't allow him to see that there could be change and growth.
There's not much else to say once the story has been set, the rest just must be enjoyed. The film also may work on some level as a parody of the "Twilight" saga that has kept everyone but teenage girls from loving the cinema for a couple years now. Teresa Palmer, who plays Julie, looks quite a bit like Kristen Stewart without the awkward, constant pouting face and Nicholas Hoult, who got his start as the title character in "About a Boy" and later played Tony in the first season of the British TV series "Skins," can be every bit as awkward as Robert Pattinson.
The difference, of course, is that both characters in "Warm Bodies" have hearts and they both have a sense of humor. And one of them is a zombie. I'm looking forward to seeing this one again and enjoying it every bit as much as the audience I saw it with enjoyed it the first time around.
(Flint McColgan is a staff writer for The Minot Daily News. His movie reviews appear in Thursday's Arts &?Entertainment section.)