The last decade has seen a renewed interest in zombies in popular culture. While there are many literary and cultural variations on the cannibalistic undead beings, the 1968 George A Romero film Night of the Living Dead is commonly accepted to have set the contemporary standard for how zombies are imagined. Whether created by supernatural sources or human folly, zombies are dead humans that have been reanimated to instinctively hunt down and devour the living. Those who survive a zombie attack, but are wounded, suffer the fate of becoming a zombie themselves. It is little wonder the zombie horror subgenre is so popular. It promises bucket loads of visceral thrills since the decaying and violent zombie body fulfils every sort of transgressively abject gaze. As well as psychoanalytic pleasures it also facilitates class-based political critiques, where the mindless, shuffling lifeless figures stand in for various social groups or even sets of social values, such as consumerism in Dawn of the Dead (Romero’s original 1978 film and Zack Snyder’s 2004 remake).
The problem with zombies is there is only so much that can be done with them before audiences develop zombie-fatigue, no longer content to simply see how many creative ways zombies can be dismembered; Peter Jackson pretty much pushed that as far as possible in Braindead (1992). Instead, filmmakers in recent times have had to find other novel ideas to present zombie narratives. In [Rec] (2007) Jaume Balagueró and Paco Plaza experimented with film form to present a ‘found footage’ zombie film. Romero did the same, although less successfully, in the same year with Diary of the Dead. In 28 Days Later… (Danny Boyle, 2003) and the television series The Walking Dead (originally developed by Frank Darabont, 2010-ongoing) the zombie presence is secondary to the human drama, their threat serving almost as a McGuffin to allow for an exploration of how humans behave under intense duress. Shaun of the Dead (Edgar Wright, 2004) and Zombieland (Ruben Fleischer, 2009) blended the horror with comedy to become affection and self-aware homages to the genre rather than parodies. Jonathan Levine’s Warm Bodies (based on Isaac Marion’s 2011 novel) is probably closest aligned with this third category with the added bonus of finding a new way of incorporating social critique into the zombie genre. It also introduces a zombie/human romance story, progressing the genre into new terrain once more.
The reason Warm Bodies works as well as it does is because it incorporates a new dimension to the genre without compromising the mythology that has come before. Initially the idea that the young male zombie R (Nicholas Hoult) is aware of his physical limitations, lost identity and bloodlust, is played for laughs with the humour relying on the audience being aware of various zombie film characteristics. R’s droll narration could have been smug and disingenuous, if it were not genuinely funny. Warm Bodies really comes into its own when it uses a classic zombie trope – the desire to eat the brains of the living – to not only provide a rationale for that trope, but to plausibly suggest how a zombie could then fall in love.
The object of R’s desire is Julie Grigio (Teresa Palmer), a living human. After bringing R and Julie together the film slowly introduces the idea that the pair may be able to see beyond their differences and be driven to convince their respective companions to similarly learn to respect that which is different from them. Not only is R an outsider for being dead, but he is also very much the sensitive, quiet type who likes collecting vinyl records, as opposed to Julie whose father is Colonel Grigio (John Malkovich), the militaristic leader of the human survivors who has built a large wall to keep the zombies away from the humans. It is a concept not unlike something from an episode of Joss Whedon’s television series Buffy the Vampire Slayer (1997–2003) – and Julie is something of a Buffyesque tough yet empathetic character – and developed with a similar level of wit and insight, without ever becoming too complex. The fun references to a classic theatrical text are overt, but never completely spelled out. Using the misunderstanding between zombies and humans to push a message of acceptance and reconciliation is yet another variation on the sympathetic monster message frequently found in Tim Burton’s films and with the zombies in ParaNorman (Sam Fell and Chris Butler, 2012). Warm Bodies even contains the convenient device of having two types of zombies: the good ones such as R and his friend M (Rob Corddry) and the bad skeletal bonies who have lost all traces of humanity that the good zombies still possess. Nevertheless, the film is so cleverly and endearingly written that it even draws upon its own limitations to deliver fun gags.
Finding a love story in the zombie genre cannot have been an easy task, as romance does not present itself so obviously as it does with the vampire genre. Both involve undead beings who need to feed on the living, and in basic psychoanalytic terms the vampire bite on the neck and the zombie devouring of the flesh are expressions of sexual desire through violence. However, while the vampire attack is frequently associated with dark and forbidden seduction in various gothic texts, the zombie attack seems more akin to abuse resulting in a sexually transmitted disease. David Cronenberg’s Shivers (1975) and Rabid (1977) may not be officially zombie films, but they contain many of the core elements and powerfully establish the venereal infection symbolism. Nevertheless, Warm Bodies does facilitate a convincing love story through the confines of the zombie genre by introducing the idea that to love is to live and therefore through love the undead have the chance to become more than primal monsters. Furthermore, it identifies the ability to love as something intrinsically tied to memory and therefore human identity.
As a supernatural romance film Warm Bodies may be inevitably and superficially compared to the limp and regressive Twilight series, but it has far more in common with Tim Burton’s films and Buffy the Vampire Slayer. It even presents a plausible continuation to the idea of zombie empathy that Romeo himself hinted at in Land of the Dead (2005). While Warm Bodies is more slanted towards comedy and romance rather than horror, it remains true to the zombie genre while pushing it in an unexpected direction. The result is a fun and refreshing take on familiar conventions making Warm Bodies an extremely enjoyable cinema experience.