Friday, February 01, 2013

WARM BODIES Throws The Zombie Rulebook Out The Window With Mixed Results

Opening today at nearly every multiplex in the Triangle area:

(Dir. Jonathan Levine, 2013)

The premise of this film, which is being hyped as the zombified answer to TWILIGHT, is promising. 

After a zombie apocalypse, which is getting easier and easier to set up - just display some headlines and news clips about a plague and you're in, a teen-aged member of the walking dead falls in love with a human, and that love may not just bring him back to life, it may save the entire zombie population.

Nicholas Hoult (the kid from ABOUT A BOY and Beast from X-MEN: FIRST CLASS) plays the young zombie who tells us through a running inner dialogue voice over that he doesn’t remember who he was, or what he did, but figures “My hoodie would suggest I was unemployed.”

But wait a second, zombies aren’t supposed to have inner dialogues, right? Well, that’s our first indication that WARM BODIES, adapted from the bestselling novel by Isaac Marion by director/screenwriter Levine, is going to mess around a bit with zombie mythology.

Hoult lives at deserted airport in Montreal, Canada (at least that’s where it was filmed) among dozens of the undead who shuffle around aimlessly, grunting, like zombies do. Our protagonist has what he calls “almost conversations” with his best friend, Rob Corddry (The Daily Show, HOT TUB TIME MACHINE), consisting of mild groans, and he spends his nights in an airplane filled with stuff he collects, sort of in a WALL-E way.

Meanwhile, back in the world of the living, Teresa Palmer and Dave Franco portray a young couple who leave their heavily-guarded walled-off section of the city, ruled by John Malkovich as Palmer’s stern self-appointed General father, with a small group of fellow survivors to raid abandoned buildings for meds and other supplies.

Things go awry with they run into Hoult and other walkers, out on a hunt for human flesh, in a lab. Hoult kills Franco, but saves Palmer from the other zombies as its love at first sight.

Hoult takes Palmer back to the airport, telling her she’ll be safe there - yes, he can actually form a few words - and entertains her by playing records on a somehow functioning turntable from his vinyl collection (kudos for the extremely appropriate use of Bruce Springsteen’s “Hungry Heart”). “Better…sound” he actually musters about his preference for the vinyl format.

This is where the plot mechanics break down a bit. Hoult keeps his dream girl at the airport because it’s too dangerous for her to try to return to the safe zone, but then we see them taking a joyride in a snazzy red Mercedes around the runway. If they have access to a car like that, surely they can get her back home, but whatever.

The film breaks more of the established zombie rules by having the real villains be what’s called “Bonies,” that is zombies that are so far gone they have ripped off all their flesh and are just evil not-too-convincing CGI-ed corpses.

So the zombie romantic comedy (zom rom com?) WARM BODIES, with its conceit that the undead can be saved by love, is a mixed bag that made me laugh a few times, but ultimately I couldn’t completely buy into it.

It swiftly runs its course through to a battle climax between the Bonies and the humans, who learn that the not as dead zombies are on their side, but by then its spirit of invention has been replaced by an all too predictable formula.

Still, there’s some wit and charm here that may appeal to matinee moviegoers, Levine's direction is sharp (his previous film 50/50 was a lot sharper), and the visual style of the film, provided by cinematographer Javier Aguirresarobe, absorbingly keeps in line with the horror aesthetics of the zombie genre, despite the rest of the movie throwing the rule book out the window.

As for the cast, Hoult and Palmer are likable even if they don't have much chemistry together, Franco has a pretty throwaway role mostly seen through flashbacks (you see, when Hoult snacks on his brains he gets to experience his victim's memories), and Malkovich isn't given the material needed for him to make his mark so he barely even nibbles on the scenery.

WARM BODIES severely stretches its premise thin with its lapses in zombie logic, and its high concept gets overly compromised by rom com conventions. Perhaps if it were funnier I could overlook its faults, but as it stands its promising premise never fully paid off.

More later...

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