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FILM REVIEW: Warm Bodies

Categories: Movies

"God we move slow. This could take a while."

R the zombie

It can be tough being a film fan in the long dark days of February. Mid-winter is a traditional dumping ground for studios, the place where movies not good enough for the Oscars, nor fast and flashy enough for blockbuster season, go to die. But every year there's an exception to the rule. In 2011 it was the surprisingly vigorous The Grey. This year it's Warm Bodies, a movie that manages to breathe new life into two of the most overplayed genres: zombies and romantic comedies.

Built on the classic architecture of the rom-com, Warm Bodies succeeds by finding some new ideas in the lives of the undead, brought to life by director/writer Jonathan Levine (working off the novel by Isaac Marion.)

Warm Bodies Analeigh Tipton, Teresa Palmer and Dave Franco as the human raiders in Warm Bodies. (Eone Films)

Warm Bodies begins with the voice of sallow-faced romantic lead R (Nicholas Hoult). R (he can't remember his full name) is a zombie. There was some vague apocalypse and now he and hundreds of his shuffling friends spend their days stuck in a deserted airport terminal. Just the idea of spending an eternity waiting in a place most of us try to get out of as quickly as possible creates a chuckle, one of many in this inventive mash-up.

True, we are in the age of the remixed movie. There was Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter. There's a zombie Pride and Prejudice on the way. While Lincoln the vampire hunter was ludicrous, Warm Bodies works because it respects the genre, while adding new twists.

In the realm of zombie life, R's voice is first thing we hear and it's what makes Warm Bodies so ... animating. While too much narration can be a crutch, R's sarcastic slacker-turned-brain-stalker voice is unique. Nicholas Hoult is well cast as the undead heartthrob. His tall brow and triangle-shaped face is at once alien but striking. Warm Bodies amplifies the typical young man worries about life and loneliness by trapping his angst in this mute monster. Warm Bodies even wedges in a bit of cultural commentary, as R wonders what life must be like when everyone could actually talk to each other — cue the flashback of a busy airport with everyone staring at their smart phones.

Warm Bodies Teresa Palmer as Julie and Nicholas Hoult as R bond in his airplane home. (Eone Films)

While R and his mute friend M (Rob Corddry) are stumbling towards their next meal, R meets Julie. As the retro-licious soundtrack soars, R is struck dumb by the blonde with an assault weapon. While zombies devour the rest of the human scouting party, R shelters Julie, taking her back to his home, a converted jumbo jet stocked with pre-disaster treasures much like Wall-E's cargo container.

Here Warm Bodies is on more familiar ground. It's a post-apocalyptic West Side Story — two lovers from two different worlds. Julie is the daughter of the leader of the human resistance movement. R is the zombie slowly rediscovering his human side. But then Warm Bodies flips the formula once again. Every classic rom-com has the Lovers Dilemma — the secret he/she is hiding that will tear the two apart the moment it's revealed. In Warm Bodies, the dilemma comes by way of a tweak to zombie-lore. The movie tells us that when zombies consume the brains of their victims, they experience their memories. It's as close as zombies come to dreaming, brought to life by Levine's colour-soaked cinematography. It turns out that just before R first met Julie, he happened to kill her boyfriend Perry. Now with each little guilty nibble of grey matter, R gains new insights.

But in flagrant disregard of the rom-com by-laws, Warm Bodies reveals R's brain food secret midway through. The focus turns to R's coming-of-age or call it coming-to-life progression as the vision of Julie gets his dead heart beating. With careful make-up and patience, Hoult slowly transforms from a Walking Dead extra to an almost-human with a posture problem.

If anything saves Warm Bodies from being another blah February release it's the playful tone of the entire affair. While fully rooted in both zombie and rom-com genres, the story never takes the characters for granted, aided by some snappy supporting work by Rob Corddry as the zombie friend, Analeigh Tipton as Julie's no-nonsense friend and finally the one and only John Malkovich as Grigio, Julie's father.

While Warm Bodies owes as much to the Bard as it does to George A. Romero, there's enough of a spark to make this mash-up stand on its own.

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