Zombies make for strange characters in a film about love, or maybe love is just a strange subject for a zombie film. But Jonathan Levine's Warm Bodies, based on the novel by Isaac Marion, marries love and zombies convincingly, if sometimes a bit sentimentally, professing that love cures all ills—and can even bring the dead back to life.
We first meet the film's zombie protagonist, R (Nicholas Hoult), as he shambles through an airport, one of a vast horde of undead which he comments on as a whole, wondering how they've all come to this. R provides eloquent voiceover as counterbalance to his slow-moving, groaning corpse. He's angsty about his future prospects, asking himself, "What am I doing with my life?" Breaking convention, R can actually speak out loud—haltingly and awkwardly, but he can definitely get out a word or two. He also collects things from the lost world of the living, chiefly old records, which he plays to himself in an abandoned airplane he's turned into his home (he prefers vinyl because the sound is "more alive"). He clearly wants more than the cards he's been dealt, but it remains to be seen whether his desire for connection will supersede his desire for brains.
Cut to a strange but affecting meet-cute when R, after leading a group of zombies away from the airport and toward the city in search of brains, stumbles upon a group of humans scavenging for pharmaceutical products. R and his comrades burst into the room ready for a feast, but then R sees Julie from across the room, and the sight of her awakens something in him he'd thought was long dead. He ends up saving her from his zombie companions, but not before killing her boyfriend, Perry (Dave Franco), and eating his brain—an act which, in the world of Warm Bodies, grants zombies access to their victims' memories, a startlingly original and effective device. Levine offers us a quick montage of Julie and Perry's courtship, and R subsequently falls in love with Julie by seeing her through the eyes of someone who loved her before.
Julie's initial discomfort in R's presence is eventually replaced with a very real fondness for him as he gives her food and blankets, plays records for her, and shows her his various collections of trinkets, all while keeping her safe from the undead horde wandering around outside the plane's windows. Meanwhile, R is becoming human again, presumably feeding now on the power of love rather than brains. The idea of the zombie cure originating with R and Julie so long after the initial uprising is convenient and unlikely, but that's mostly beside the point. This isn't a by-the-books contagious disease-outbreak thriller or even a gritty horror romp (though there are some very terrifying moments mostly having to do with the boneys, a breed of fast-moving skeletal monsters who used to be regular zombies, but have now shed all semblance of humanity). But in a fantasy you can make up your own rules, and Warm Bodies flouts convention in a number of ways in service of its genre-mash-up agenda while still contributing something original to the tradition of the zombie film. Never shying away from the horror of a good chase scene, the film also isn't afraid to play "Pretty Woman" while a zombie gets his makeup done.
The love between R and Julie has acted as a defibrillator to the zombie population, shocking them all back to life with the possibility of real connection, and the zombies and humans meet again in a final showdown where one wonders if the love of two attractive young people is actually enough to make everyone see clearly enough to stop killing each other. This is Romeo and Juliet for a generation weaned on the charms of supernatural bad boys like Edward Cullen and Scott McCall—instinctively evil vampires and werewolves repackaged as love objects for young girls wanting a little bark with their bite. Enter R, the zombie who will eat your boyfriend, and Julie, who (spoiler alert!) does what none of her paranormal fantasy heroine peers has accomplished yet: cures the bad boy of all his badness. She has her cake and eats it too. And this rewrite of the typically doomed couple is the film's ultimate contribution to a lineage more often dominated by melodramatic fits of despair.
The ubiquity of Shakespeare's original template allows Warm Bodies some leeway in terms of believability, where otherwise it sometimes strains against its own logic. But the film's persistent charm encourages us to look past a few festering surface wounds and see the human heart beating inside, which is really what love is all about.