Our Shakespeare Fortnight continues with a zombie love story. The one that isn’t Shaun of the Dead.
So, let’s get this out of the way straight away… SPOILER ALERT (we take these things seriously!) the reason Warm Bodies is included in our Shakespeare Fortnight is that is based on Romeo and Juliet. It’s not a huge spoiler, but when there’s a take on one of the most iconic scenes in literature, the origins of the story becomes clear, and although things slot into place through the middle act, that knowledge should not spoil your enjoyment of a very likable romantic comedy – one with a slight difference!
Nicholas Hoult is R (R… just R) a young man with pale skin and bad posture, who tells us in voiceover that he needs to eat better and connect with other people. He also says he shouldn’t be too hard on himself, since he is dead, just like everyone else around him (“This girl is dead. This guy is dead. That guy in the corner is definitely dead”). R lives in an airport, spends his days wandering around the terminal, occasionally meeting his best friend (Rob Corddry) at the airport bar. The dead have vague, fragmented memories of the past (Corddry’s character motions for the bill when leaving his seat at the bar), until they finally give up hope and become “Boneys”, full on zombies who eat anything with a heart beat (as R says “at least I’m conflicted about it”) Before that though they act on instinct, as we see R and his friend exchange the words “hunger” and “city” before setting off on a hunting raid.
The walled off human city is presided over by Colonel Grigio (John Malkovich), whose daughter Julie (Teresa Palmer of Lights Out) is also leaving on a raid, only the humans are going after medicine rather than flesh. Her boyfriend Perry (Dave Franco, Nerve) and best friend Nora (Analeigh Tipton, who I last saw in the underrated Mississippi Grind) are also part of the group, but they are cornered by R’s horde and attacked. When R sees Julie though, he sees her as more than just a meal. After reluctantly eating Perry’s brain (pretty standard rom-com fare!) he gets his memories, and so experiences what it was like to be in a relationship with Julie. R saves Julie, and after masking her scent from the other zombies with his blood, he takes her back to his “home”.
Back at the plane R calls home, he shows Julie his various treasures, including an impressive collection of vinyl records. The two start to communicate, and R starts to feel a connection… and his heart beat. Just once, but he starts to notice the changes that happen to him. Can Julie ever trust R? Is R the only zombie with these feelings, or are they all destined to become Boneys? And how will her Colonel father react when he finds out?
I am a huge stickler for the little details when it comes to “zombie” movies. Too often the living dead gain abilities that have never been referenced before (or directly contradict what has previously been established) for the sake of a plot point or a coll visual. I’m still a bit unsure on Land of the Dead, and Survival of the Dead annoys me by not sticking to the premise established in the previous four decades of Romero films. At first the increased mobility and vocabulary of R and his friend started to irritate me, but it actually shows the slow improvement in R’s condition. It’s an idea that is set up early in the film – in fact, R’s literally sets up the cure in the first voice over – and the Boneys are closer to the traditional movie zombie. If you ever saw the excellent BBC Three show In The Flesh, that programmes’ Partially Deceased Syndrome is a similar idea.
The unlikely setting also give both “Hungry Heart” by Bruce Springsteen and “Shelter from the Storm” by Bob Dylan a lyric depth far beyond the songwriters ever meant. As R and Julie slowly build a relationship, they hit the usual roadblocks: he is non-committal, she wants to visit her family, he is eating parts of her boyfriends brain to get to be able to feel again. You know, the ups and downs of any relationship.
Hoult and Palmer are excellent. Both have shown that they can headline movies on their own, and here they are cute, strong and funny, sometimes all in the same scene. Their relationship develops naturally in a fairly standard way, despite its obstacles! Malkovich is military grade Malkovich this time out, great as usual, and Rob Corddry brings some unexpected emotion to his role.
Warm Bodies of course suffers from one thing: it’s not Shaun of the Dead. Anything remotely near the rom zom com genre suffers in comparison to the Edgar Wrght/Simon Pegg masterpiece, but there is room for Warm Bodies there. It is more of a standard romantic comedy, with some self-aware references thrown in (“this will take a while” says R as the horde shuffles towards the city). It would make a good double bill with the Dane DeHaan/Aubrey Plaza film Life After Beth. I suppose it’s a study of the problems any relationship has, and the fact that one of them is dead is just another issue to resolve.
In fact, do you know what Warm Bodies is? It’s Romeo and Juliet with zombies. There, I could have saved you reading the last few hundred words. Who was it who said “brevity is the soul of wit” again?
We continue our Shakespeare Fortnight tomorrow with another Romeo and Juliet adaptation, the Jet Li and RnB star Aaliyah vehicle: Romeo Must Die.
Until next time, stay gold, Ponyboy, stay gold. See you soonish.