Format: DVD from Rockford Public Library on laptop.
I’ve never been shy about the fact that I don’t much like Romeo and Juliet as a story. It’s what prevents me from really enjoying a movie like West Side Story no matter how objectively good it might be. That stood in the way of my watching Warm Bodies for the first time, since it’s so clearly a take on Shakespeare’s play with the additional twist of involving the undead. Still, nothing ventured, right? It turns out that I liked it more than I thought I would, so I was happy to revisit it here.
And really, that is the conceit with Warm Bodies. This is a version of Romeo and Juliet with a zombie Romeo. We start with our zombie, R (Nicholas Hoult), a hoodie-wearing 20-something zombie who wanders around the airport with a group of other zombies. R is a little different from the norm in that he collects things, which he stores in an abandoned airplane. These things he collects perhaps remind him of his former life or at least his former humanity. Periodically, he meets with his friend M (Rob Corddry), and the two wander off toward the city in the hopes of finding something to eat.
As it happens, on this trip into the city, R, M, and the rest of the zombies run into a group from the walled city nearby. This group, led by Perry (Dave Franco) and Julie (Teresa Palmer), are in the zombie area looking for medicine and supplies for the city. In the ensuing melee, R feels a twinge of emotion for Julie. He also kills Perry, and we learn a little about the zombie desires for brains specifically. While they are happy to eat anything, the brains temporarily give them the memories of the victim (and eating the brain prevents the victim from rising as a zombie). Since Perry and Julie are a couple, the minute R eats a bite of Perry’s cerebral cortex, he falls hard for Julie and decides to protect her. He disguises her scent by putting some zombie blood on her and takes her back to the airport.
And really, this is where a lot of the film’s heart takes place. R and Julie start to figure each other out, with R sneaking away for bites of Perry’s brain now and then. The fact that he is starting to experience emotions again is more or less bringing him back to life. Meanwhile, he works to protect her from the other zombies, many of whom see this budding relationship and begin to feel emotions themselves.
What stands in the way of all of this are the Boneys, zombies who are so far gone that they have ripped off all of their own skin. The Boneys will eat anything with a pulse, and are scary even for the rank and file zombies. When those zombies start to have a heartbeat again, they start to appear on the radar of the Boneys, giving us a three-way struggle. We have the completely feral and carnivorous Boneys, the zombies who are struggling to regain their humanity, and the humans, who (based on experience) are under the impression that everything that isn’t alive is out for their sweet, sweet, grey matter.
There are a lot of things that Warm Bodies does really well. One of the main things is that a great deal of the film is narrated by R, who isn’t mentally slow in the narration. It’s dry and deadpan (no pun intended) and works in almost every instance. It also helps that the supporting cast is extremely good. In addition to Rob Corddry, who steals every scene he’s in, we have John Malkovich playing Julie’s father and the military leader of the human city and Analeigh Tipton as Emily, Julie’s best friend.
It’s also smart enough to not take itself too seriously. To begin with, it’s a zombie movie, so we’re already in the realm of the unreal. That it also involves a romance between a live human and a zombie and doesn’t really delve too far into the idea that this is more or less necrophilia, which is probably a good thing. It’s pleasantly funny, not going much into unnecessary gore, because this isn’t a movie about the gore. The zombies themselves are sort of midway between the classic Romero shamblers and the Dawn of the Dead remake speed demons. They act with a level of intelligence and the ability to use tools, but they aren’t fully functional. And, of course, they can think slowly and can talk.
Where Warm Bodies doesn’t work is in the third act. The zombies start to become more human and to slowly return to life, which is a massive (but appropriate in this case) change from typical zombie lore. It turns this into an action movie, though, and I’m not sure that works entirely. More significant is the fact that the Boneys are clearly CGI creatures, and they aren’t very effective for what they are.
Still, it’s hard to dislike Warm Bodies. It’s a lot smarter than it has any right to be, and it works a lot better than it should. And make no mistake, this is absolutely Romeo and Juliet. There’s even a balcony scene.
Why to watch Warm Bodies: Zombie Shakespeare.
Why not to watch: It’s still Shakespeare’s lamest play.