Perhaps it bodes well for awkward young men around the world if an undead Nicholas Hoult is able to form a relationship with a beautiful woman. Especially after killing her boyfriend and eating his brain. Such is the basis of Jonathan Levine’s screwball horror Warm Bodies (2013), a modern ‘zom-rom-com’ to (potentially) kick-start a romantic sub-genre which portrays its hobbling protagonists with warmth and magnanimity. In a dystopian North America, surviving humans have walled themselves into a safe part of the city while the surrounding areas are roamed by pale-faced zombos constantly on the hunt for their next fleshy meal.
However, when ‘R’ (Hoult) stumbles into Julie (Teresa Palmer), something clicks; maybe it was his detached jaw hitting the floor or the final crunch of her boyfriend’s cerebellum, but either way the pair have some kind of spark. Now R must protect his lovely Julie from his less articulate brethren, particularly the ‘boneys’, akin to the aliens in M. Night Shyamalan’s Signs (2002) that prowl around the streets roaring and shrieking. For astute viewers, the references to Romeo and Juliet will not go unnoticed. There’s even a balcony scene in case you’re really struggling. Shakespeare this isn’t, but Levine’s picture has its tongue firmly inside its half-eaten cheek.
Questions of existential angst are parked as we’re privy to the internal monologuing of Hoult’s shuffling corpse. “Stop staring at her, you’re being weird again” he tells himself. For a zombie film, this is gloriously uplifting, even moving, and nudges the point that we’re all dead inside until we find our better half without getting lost in some weird lifeless satire. Perhaps even more ludicrous humour would have worked better – a real wacky comedy – as the pace struggles at times and almost every character is painfully two-dimensional.
It’s probably easier to excuse Hoult in this regard, since he is playing a dead person (although it would be hard to tell the difference). We were given a jolly glimpse into the funny side of death quite recently with Ben Wheatley’s Sightseers (2012) and Warm Bodies could learn a lot from its eccentricity. Performances matter, and casting Hoult alongside Teresa Palmer might look the part but they can hardly pull off the same kind of Alice Lowe and Steve Oram-esque comedy. Instead, Warm Bodies doesn’t achieve new genre greatness but is an adorable rom-com with a deadly twist.