Before we begin our discussion of Warm Bodies, I want to say few words about vampires. Why vampires? Because zombies and vampires have a great deal in common, especially if you look at their history. In ancient times, vampires bore more resemblance to zombies than to anything we would call a vampire today. They looked – and smelled – like the reanimated corpses they were. At dusk, they would claw their way out of their graves and stagger about, seeking to feed upon the living. And they did not wear Vampire perfume.
The reasons for their existence also intersect. Everyone today is used to zombies being created by a virus. But you probably don’t know that vampires, too, have been through this phase. You are probably familiar with the 2007 zombie movie I am Legend, directed by Francis Lawrence and starring Will Smith. You might not know that this is a remake of The Last Man on Earth, directed by Sidney Salkow and starring Vincent Price (1964), which was based on the novel I am Legend by Richard Matheson (1954). Of course, neither Last Man, nor the novel had a single zombie. That’s right, in those stories, a disease turns the living into vampires. For some reason, they are still repelled by crosses and mirrors. Go figure.
Bella Lugosi started a change in the vampire’s image in 1931, and people began to think of vampires as dapper gentlemen. Another significant milestone came with Interview with the Vampire (Dir. Neil Jordan, 1994), the first major motion picture to focus on the vampire’s point of view. Interview included, among other things, Louis (Brad Pitt), a vampire whose conscience is haunted by the people he has to drain to survive. Instead of rooting for Louis’ destruction, moviegoers felt bad for him. Of course, it didn’t hurt that he looked like one of Hollywood’s most bankable heartthrobs. This was the fulcrum in the swing from vampires as dangerous to vampires as desirable. More recent vampires are genuine bring-home-to-mom material, and in fact are often kinder and more thoughtful than humans. In fact, in certain series, e.g. Underworld, vampires don’t even drink human blood. The subject of how they survive is kind of glossed over, leaving us to assume that vampires exist only to look sexy, twirl pistols, and spout the angst of a prolonged adolescence.
A lot of people are really enjoying this desirable vampire craze, of course. Nothing has generated so much drooling female hysteria as the smut series we call Twilight. But as much as Interview gave us, it also caused us to lose something. Vampires as they once were provided no end of engaging stories and wish fulfillment, because they were enemies you could kill without remorse (because they were already, you know, dead). Everyone loves a story of human struggle and triumph, especially with some combat thrown in, but when such stories involve human enemies, that raises all kinds of pesky moral issues, along with the occasional libel suit. If we have to sympathize with vampires now, who can we kill without remorse?
Zombies to the rescue! I’ve already expounded on the flood of zombie flicks we’ve seen in the 19 years since Interview. Zombie movies are the perfect genre. They’re quick and cheap to make, they don’t need to be good, and they are the perfect form of escapism, because not only do they provide an army of unfeeling, unthinking enemies, they also bring about the downfall of the Man. That mortgage you’re stressed about? Forget about it! That cubicle job you have to go to everyday? Not anymore! You now need concern yourself with three things: Food. Shelter. Zombies. So pick up your shotgun or chainsaw, and go have a head-splattering, limb-severing blast, all amid a playground of empty mansions, unguarded stores, and abandoned Ferraris.
This brings us to Warm Bodies. We join our narrator, a zombie (Nicholas Hoult) who remembers only that his name started with R, as he shambles through a crowd of other zombies, who occasionally manage to squeeze single words from their rigor mortized throats. We also meet Bonies. Bonies are what zombies will eventually become. They resemble the more skeletal monsters from The Mummy and are conceptually the same thing as the re-deads from the Resident Evil games. Our hero makes his home in a disused airplane, where he collects trinkets, listens to vinyl and wishes to be alive again.
Meanwhile, a group of teenagers, including lovers Perry (Dave Franco) and Julie (Teresa Palmer), leaves a fortified compound to scavenge supplies. They are busily ransacking a pharmacy, when a pack of zombies, including R, takes them by surprise. R is momentarily knocked down and watches Julie, rhythmically firing her shot gun, and apparently falls for her. In the following moments, R kills Perry, and proceeds to consume him. He narrates that when a zombie eats someone’s brain, that zombie experiences that person’s memories.
He concludes “I don’t want to hurt you. I just want to feel what you felt … to feel a little less dead.” The zombies come out the clear winners of this skirmish, and Julie is left standing alone, her magazines drained and her throwing knives spent. R approaches her before most of the others have left their kills and speaks her name, having learned it from Perry’s brain. To her astonishment, he rubs blood and grime over her face, and tells her “Come … s-safe.” With few options, she follows him and realizes the other zombies assume she is a new “addition to the family.” He takes her home and promises, in what sentence fragments he can manage, to keep her safe. However, she initially refuses to interact with him other than by curling into a ball and crying. He comments “I can tell when a girl needs her space. There’s other ways to get to know someone. Like eating her dead boyfriend’s brains.” He has saved several pieces from the attack, and over the next few days, he learns more of Perry and Julie’s story, and becomes increasingly remorseful for killing Perry. During this same time frame, R(omeo) and Julie(t) begin to talk more and grow closer.
R begins to change. His heart begins to beat, he begins to experience warmth and cold, and he begins to dream (“The dead do not sleep”). What’s more, as R changes, it also seems to affect the other zombies. Significantly, the zombies in this movie lack the wounds other zombie movies like to put on their zombies. No lips missing, or ribs showing or anything. From the beginning, I wondered if being a zombie was any different from having arthritis and Alzheimer’s. We actually don’t get any clues as to how any of these people died (supposedly, none of them remember). The implication seems to be, at least at the symbolic level, that these zombies only ever “died” in that they forgot what it was to be human. As they start to remember, they start to move less stiffly and form sentences. Meanwhile, Julie begins trying to convince her father (John Malkovich), who runs the compound that the zombies are not the enemy and want to help.
All this is thrown together pretty loosely. For example, there’s never really a good explanation of how the humans and zombies end up allied against the Bonies. But I’m not complaining. I have to admit, the end of Warm Bodies really did bring a smile to my face, even if there were some holes in the plot. After so many zombie flicks tried to out do each other with bleakness and cynicism, it was cool to see one where there actually was a cure found — and it wasn’t some magical batch of chemicals, but simply, well … a little TLC.
But geez, now we’ve also lost zombies as unfeeling enemies that we can kill without remorse! If both vampires and zombies are now eligible mates with hopes, dreams and humanity, what supernatural creatures can we still use as fodder for the part of us that just wants to wield a shotgun? Hmm … maybe witches? More on that next time.