Can a girl fall in love with the guy who ate her boyfriend’s brains? In a genre filled with repetitive set-ups, you can’t deny that’s a unique rom-com pitch. While romantic comedies have long had Christmas, Valentine’s Day, and even New Year’s Eve on lockdown, 2013’s zombie romance Warm Bodies is one of the few rom-coms that’s Halloween-appropriate. It aims to be scary, funny, and romantic all at once. And though it never quite succeeds at any of those things (you might even say it bites off more than it can chew), Warm Bodies at least deserves points for originality.
Based on Isaac Marion’s 2010 novel of the same name, Warm Bodies stars a post-X-Men: First Class, pre-Mad Max: Fury Road Nicholas Hoult as “R,” a semi-sentient zombie who doesn’t remember his old life or even his full name but maintains a deadpan inner monologue. The film’s highpoint is its opening scene, in which R narrates his existential crisis while aimlessly roaming through an abandoned airport. “What am I doing with my life? I’m so pale. I should get out more,” he self-flagellates. “I just want to connect. Why can’t I connect with people? Oh, right. It’s because I’m dead.” Yet when R finds an unexpected spark with spirited human survivalist Julie (Teresa Palmer), he discovers that the undead might have a second chance at life.
In retrospect, Warm Bodies is the all-but inevitable intersection of two major cultural trends. On the one hand, writer/director Jonathan Levine (The Wackness, 50/50) is pulling from a long tradition of zombie comedies, which enjoyed a modern resurgence thanks to Edgar Wright’s uproarious 2004 film Shaun Of The Dead. 2009’s Zombieland continued that trend to even bigger box office success, and like both of those zom-coms, Warm Bodies uses the metaphor of the zombie apocalypse to explore the apathy and isolationism of a certain brand of 21st-century nerdy male slacker (a topic Levine frequently explores). Shaun Of The Dead and Zombieland both center on men who’ve lost their connection to the human world and must rediscover it during a zombie crisis. Warm Bodies takes that idea one step further by making its protagonist an actual zombie.
That’s an unusual twist for the zombie genre, but it makes perfect sense within the context of the second big cultural trend that influenced Warm Bodies: the paranormal teen romance phenomenon of the late 2000s/early 2010s. Stephenie Meyer’s 2005 vampire teen romance novel, Twilight (which itself emerged to fill the gap in the YA market left behind when the Harry Potter book series ended) kicked off a brief cultural obsession with pairing everyday human teens with sexy supernatural creatures—from aliens (I Am Number Four, The Host) to monsters (Beastly). The supernatural romance trend eventually gave way to YA dystopian thrillers like Hunger Games and Divergent, which have a bit of an influence on Warm Bodies too. As Shannon Purser smartly observed while promoting her Netflix rom-com Sierra Burgess Is A Loser, there’s a whole generation that grew up getting their love stories from intense genre fare, not romantic comedies.
Warm Bodies—which was distributed by Summit Entertainment, the same studio that turned the Twilight books into a multi-billion dollar film franchise—provides a bridge between those epic genre love stories and the recent return to more lighthearted romances. Though Simon Pegg and Edgar Wright referred to Shaun Of The Dead as a “rom-zom-com,” Pegg was using the term to describe the friendship between Ed and Shaun. Warm Bodies is an actual rom-com, one that goes so far as to put a human/zombie love story right at its center. It’s more romantic than Shaun Of The Dead, but also much more comedic than the saga of Bella and Edward. Twilight is about how cool it would be for a handsome, brooding bad boy to fall in love with you. Warm Bodies is about how awkward and anxiety inducing it is to have a crush.
Hoult worked with Cirque du Soleil performers to create his zombie physicality, and he gets a silent film star’s worth of mileage out of his hilarious facial reactions. His meet cute (meet creepy?) happens when he and his fellow zombies attack Julie and her friends on a supply run. R decides to save Julie, however—partially because he feels an innate pull towards her and partially because he just ate the brains of her boyfriend Perry (Dave Franco) and therefore inherited all of Perry’s memories of their courtship. R takes Julie back to the abandoned airplane he calls home, and the two slowly bond over his love of vinyl records and her love of cars. Warm Bodies mines solid laughs from exaggerating the anxieties of flirting to zombie proportions. R awkwardly lumbers towards Julie while internally intoning, “Don’t be creepy, don’t be creepy, don’t be creepy.”
As a parable about the ways that love, compassion, and connection can bring us out of our isolated shells, Warm Bodies works well enough when it’s telling the small-scale stories of R and Julie’s romance or R’s sweet friendship with fellow zombie M (Rob Corddry). But the movie stumbles when it moves away from its rom-com roots toward big dystopian world-building. Warm Bodies takes loose inspiration from Shakespeare’s Romeo And Juliet, and ups its stakes with a subplot about Julie’s militant father Colonel Grigio (John Malkovich), who we’re meant to see as judgmental and dangerously overprotective. Julie scoffs at the fact that her dad has erected a giant wall in order to lock humanity away from the outside world. I’d argue that a zombie apocalypse is the one scenario where that’s actually a justified response.
Zombies work as a metaphor for personal apathy, but they just aren’t a natural fit for the “two groups locked in a needless rivalry” themes of Romeo And Juliet. If you read into it deeply enough, there’s something slightly creepy in how adamantly Warm Bodies argues that it’s the job of humanity (in this case, represented by a young woman) to fix the broken, murderous, anti-social impulses of zombies (in this case, represented by a young man who’s literally just eaten her boyfriend and keeps periodically snacking on his brains because he wants to live vicariously through his memories). Unlike in Romeo And Juliet, where Romeo’s murders are part of the larger tragedy Shakespeare is telling, R killing Perry is mostly just presented as a minor romantic stumbling block, even as the film also kind of wants us to invest in the tragedy of Perry’s life and death. It’s a strange mix, especially because Franco gives such a compelling performance in what easily could’ve been a throwaway role.
To be fair, that’s probably putting way too much thought into a film that’s funniest scene is a montage of a zombie trying on sunglasses. It feels like Warm Bodies would’ve been better served by leaning into its goofy comedic impulses rather than trying to tell a high-stakes, large-scale story about human prejudice and zombie redemption. That becomes especially clear in a lackluster action climax that pits the heroes against “Boneys,” a bloodthirsty army of bland-looking CGI skeletal creatures for the zombies and humans to team up against.
Warm Bodies isn’t terrible, it’s just disappointingly middling for a film that seems like it either should’ve been unexpectedly fantastic or appreciably bizarre. Twilight at least always had some of that “so-bad-it’s good” appeal going for it, and fully leaned into the joke in its fifth and final entry, Breaking Dawn–Part 2, the best of the franchise. Just two weeks after Warm Bodies hit theaters, the “so-bad-it’s-good” paranormal romance subgenre reached its apex with the absolutely bonkers witch/human love story, Beautiful Creatures, which delivers high-camp at its finest. (Among other things, it features Jeremy Irons, Emma Thompson, Viola Davis, and Emmy Rossum at an all-you-can-eat scenery buffet, plus an endearing lead performance from a pre-Hail, Caesar! Alden Ehrenreich.)
Warm Bodies is much more cohesive than Beautiful Creatures, which was reflected in its stronger reviews and better box office returns. (Warm Bodies made an impressive $116.9 million worldwide on a $35 million budget.) Yet its baseline level of competence also makes it less interesting. Once the cutesy romantic stuff is out of the way, Warm Bodies is just kind of boring. Its central love story feels less star-crossed and more underdeveloped.
In the end, Warm Bodies is a fun premise and some good performances in search of a slightly better movie. Still, it captures a fascinating tipping point in big-screen YA storytelling. Warm Bodies offered a final sendoff to the supernatural romance genre, gestured toward the rise of the dystopian one, and in some ways forecast the return of the good old-fashioned romantic comedy. For those who prefer to get into the Halloween spirit with something sweetly romantic rather than outright scary, Warm Bodies earns its spot on the list alongside the likes of Corpse Bride and Practical Magic.
Next time: After a brief hiatus, we’ll be back in mid-November with a look at the past decade in rom-coms.