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Warm Bodies: Dead and Not Loving It

by admin February 1, 2013 6:02 am
Warm Bodies: Dead and Not Loving It

I generally try not to be too persnickety when creative types take liberties with long-established mythologies. Vampires that sparkle in sunlight instead of burn to a crisp? Kinda stupid, but okay. Peter Parker gains his web-shooting abilities organically rather than through invention? Not ideal, but I'll run with it. So I went into the new zombie rom-com Warm Bodies with an open mind, not thrilled about the improbable idea of watching a member of walking dead fall in love with a living, breathing human, but willing to be persuaded that such a thing might be possible. Unfortunately, not only did Warm Bodies -- which writer/director Jonathan Levine adapted from a book by Isaac Marion that, full disclosure, I haven't read -- fail to convince me of its central conceit, but the movie's general depiction of zombie life is shoddy, inconsistent and often downright dumb. As silly as I felt muttering to myself "But a zombie couldn't/wouldn't do that!" at every turn, that's how much the movie got on my nerves and made it almost impossible to enjoy its few modest charms. Here are the most irritating changes Warm Bodies makes to zombie lore.

Zombies Can Narrate Their Own Lives... and Even Tell Jokes
Ever wonder what was going on in the mind of a zombie? No, right? Because nothing is going on in the mind of a zombie -- that's why they're zombies. If they were to carry on an internal monologue, it would mainly consist of: "Braaaaains," "So hungry for braaaaains" and also "Where are all the braaaaains?" But it turns out that R (Nicholas Hoult), the zombie at the center of Warm Bodies, has a lot more going on upstairs. While he can barely utter a word through his vocal box (at least, not at first... but we'll get to that development in a bit) in his mind, he's a veritable chatterbox of humorous observations and deep thoughts -- Jerry Seinfeld meets Spalding Gray. Now, to be fair, the concept of first-person zombie narration is carried over from the book, where it might have been more successful. Onscreen, however, R's mental monologue comes off as more absurd than amusing, especially whenever he cracks wise about the challenges of zombie life. The notion of a self-aware zombie is cute for two minutes; at 97, it's mind-numbing.

Zombies Can Absorb Memories
It's a longstanding tradition that zombies have a taste for grey matter. The wrinkle added to Warm Bodies is that when they consume a person's brains, they also consume their memories. So when R feasts on the head of young soldier Perry (Dave Franco, brother of James) -- who heads up a team of fighters infiltrating the zombie wasteland to gather supplies for the dwindling population of survivors living behind a giant wall -- the guy's consciousness is absorbed into his own mind, from his idyllic childhood to his romance with hot blonde and daughter of his commanding general, Julie (Teresa Palma, Australia's answer to Kristen Stewart). Rather than devouring Perry's brain all in one go, R very economically stores some for later, so every time he needs a hit of humanity, he just pops a lump in his mouth and accesses another one of his victim's memories. More importantly -- although this isn't stated directly in the film -- he appears to absorb his emotions and abilities. So when he gazes at Julie, it's with the same love and affection that Perry felt. His ability to speak coherent sentences gradually comes back as well until, by the end of the movie, he's engaging in actual conversations. Gee... ya think that Levine is trying to Say Something about the way a lost soul -- someone who feels dead inside -- can recover his humanity? Look, the best zombie films have always carried a certain metaphorical weight, from the consumerist satire in George A. Romero's Dawn of the Dead to the ease of complete societal breakdown in Danny Boyle's 28 Days Later. And I don't begrudge Warm Bodies for trying to create its own zombie metaphor. But turning the traditional act of brain eating into a form of mental downloading is just lame and raises a host of logical questions the movie is clearly unprepared to answer.

Zombies Can Drive Cars
Zombies Can Play Vinyl Records
Zombies Can Hoard Pop Culture
Zombies Can Read About Kim Kardashian in Us Weekly

Even before R starts chowing down on Pete's brains, it's clear he has abilities beyond the purview of most zombies. He's got a taste for listen to classic rock on the original vinyl, for one thing, and even has the dexterity to put the records on his turntable. He can also consciously open doors (instead of fumbling with the handle mindlessly until they open) and is somehow capable of picking up other pop culture items of interest (like, say, a DVD copy of Lucio Fulci's 1979 cult favorite Zombie... har har har) and stashing them back at his home base -- the passenger cabin of an abandoned airplane. After he starts snacking on gray matter, he's suddenly able to perform a bunch of other tasks, like driving a car and reading about the long dead Kim Kardashian (or, at least, looking at her photos) in an old issue of Us. (My least favorite skill he acquires is the ability to run, especially since the film opens with him complaining how zombies are forced to walk so slowly everywhere.) Clearly, we're intended to laugh at the incongruity of a zombie doing all of these oh-so-human things -- and ties into the overarching "zombies are people, too" message that runs throughout the movie -- but it's a one-joke idea that Levine beats into the ground.

Zombies Can Become Walking Skeletons
Since a zombie is the hero of the movie, there's got to be a creature worse than a zombie to serve as the villain. In this case, that creature would be a Boney -- a zombie that grew so tired of its meaningless existence that its body peeled away and it now roams the streets as an eyeless, skinless skeleton that hunts down anything with a heartbeat. (One benefit of becoming a Boney -- you're apparently instantly capable of running to more easily capture your prey.) Imagine one of those old Harryhausen skeletons from Jason and the Argonauts given a not-so-stunning digital makeover courtesy of low-res CGI and you've got the basic Boney design. I can't speak to how this threat was used in the book, but in the movie, the Boneys are a complete afterthought -- boogeymen who vanish for long periods of time and only re-emerge when Levine decides to put the characters in peril. Zombies by themselves are scary enough, thank you very much. We don't need poorly animated skeletons walking running around as well.

Zombies Are Just Emo-Teen Boys at Heart
And here's where I really throw up my hands with Warm Bodies. Leaving aside the book for a moment, the movie feels like a case where some studio executive said, "Gee, we really want to make another teen romance, but it needs a twist. I know! Make one of them a zombie!" In terms of its narrative, Warm Bodies is practically beat for beat the typical story of a dorky teen and the out of his league girl whom he falls for and eventually wins. The only thing that distinguishes it from the countless other movies of its type is the fact that its hero is a zombie and that, in turn, forces Levine to rewrite walking dead mythology in dumb ways in order to make R a viable love interest who can sustain a feature. (For the record, I think there's a terrific short film to be made about an actual zombie -- i.e. one who can't think, speak or drive a car -- who enjoys a brief encounter with a human before inevitably killing him/her.) I don't blame Hoult or Palmer for the misfire that is Warm Bodies; both of them are perfectly serviceable actors who generate a decent spark of chemistry together. Rather, I think the concept was doomed to failure from the get-go because of the inconsistent, illogical way that Levine handles the zombie question. I know, I know... nothing sounds nerdier than demanding logic from a movie about zombies. But as a corollary to that, nothing is more frustrating than a movie that displays little to no knowledge of its subject.

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