Thursday, February 7, 2013

‘Warm Bodies’ (2013) directed by Jonathan Levine, 5th February 2013

Why are zombies so popular at the moment?  I’ve seen books about how to survive a zombie invasion, shot hordes of them bits in videogames, even met people with actual honest-to-god zombie preparedness plans and, of course, watched an inordinate amount of films about people surviving their way through the ruins of the modern world, now infested with shambling corpses.  What does this obsession say about us? 

I find the whole craze a bit tasteless; zombie invasion as an outlet for people's anti-social, violent fantasies.  Everyone imagines themselves as the lone survivor, a ruthless and pragmatic shotgun wielding warrior eking their way across a damned world full of mindless, flesh-eating monsters.  One of the most common factors in zombie survival films is the necessity of ruthlessness.  The cliché scene is the frazzled survivor coming across a zombie and “oh no!” it’s their father.  But he’s one of the undead now, and the only right thing to do is to shoot him in the head.  It’s this frame of mind that I find most disturbing; the notion of surviving a zombie outbreak is a socially acceptable fantasy allowing you to murder or dismember your friends, family and countless strangers.

R (Nicholas Hoult)
The solipsism inherent in the premise also bugs me.  The zombie genre  promotes a view of the individual being the most important unit in society.  The worst fate in a zombie film is to be infected and become one of the masses, to join the shambling hordes.  Traditionally zombies are a metaphor for mindless consumerism, but I’m with ‘The Real Doctor Philon this when he identifies them thusly:
Zombies as a horror staple are the result of some unfathomable biological or supernatural crisis that cannot be reversed. They are mindless. They are faceless. They are ugly. And they want to invade your home and feast on your flesh. If this does not work as an allegory for bourgeois attitudes to and fears of the working class, I don't know what does. 
 But at the same time zombies offer an opportunity for asserting superiority, mastery, contempt, and individuality against the mass. Zombies are slow and stupid. Humans are quick and intelligent. Zombies are limited by their reach. Humans can use all manner of weapons. Provided they are not swarming in great numbers, humans run rings around them - lopping off a limb here, beheading another there, removing their teeth, chaining them up, what fun can be had! And all without a troubled conscience too. 
 Zombie settings offer a simple fantasy where one can assert the self - sometimes heroically - against the world. You have to beat the undead hordes. Unlike the ever-popular vampires, one cannot join them. Zombies tune into ruling class anxieties and a popular longing for recognition and simplicity. And as long as capitalism blindly lurches from crisis to crisis in the mindless pursuit of profits, so the popularity of the zombie will endure.”
 So where does ‘Warm Bodies’ fit into this paradigm?  Perhaps inevitably it’s been labelled a ‘zomromcom’.  The concept seems like a bad joke, a satire on the Twilight crowd like the atrocious ‘Vampires Suck’.  Much of the appeal of this film is curiosity how they can make the bizarre premise of a Romeo and Juliet inspired love story between a zombie boy and a human girl work.

R and Julie (Teresa Palmer)
To my complete surprise this relationship not only works, it works well.  ‘Warm Bodies’ doesn’t skimp on the ‘zombie’-ness either.  Our hero, ‘R’ (Nicholas Hoult) is a full on rotting shambling corpse.  As the film opens he’s just another among an army of undead aimlessly making their way around an abandoned airport.  He can just about speak if he concentrates, but can only mutter “hungry” or “eat”.  We even get to see him killing a man, cracking his head open and feasting on the goo inside (probably a first for a lead in a romantic comedy).

Fortunately R gets an internal monologue throughout the film allowing him to express himself beyond moans and strangled words.  He’s a likeable, pragmatic, wry sort of zombie, aware and importantly, accepting of his situation.  In a fantastic opening sequence we see him meandering around the airport he calls home, explaining to us what a day in the life of a zombie is like.  Hoult does an outstanding job as R, conveying neither misery nor elation at the life of the undead, but rather a sense of perpetual ennui, unable to communicate, dream or age, slowly rotting into feral oblivion.  More impressively, for much the film he tells us all this through groaning and clumsily shrugging his shoulders.

 It’s easy to see parallels the film draws between teenage angst and zombiehood, but I think it’s more interesting to view R’s undead nature as a metaphor for mild depression.  The way R lonely trudges around a grey world, not caring about anything in particular captures ‘the blues’ perfectly.    It’s only when he meets the shotgun wielding Julie (Teresa Palmer) that he begins to regain his humanity, piece by piece.  He instantly falls head over heels for her, and without really knowing what or why he’s doing it, rescues her from the other zombies and brings her back to the abandoned plane he calls home.  The scenes that follow are the best in the film as we see her terror melt into curiosity and eventually affection. 

The first time you see them together, Julie is wide-eyed, panicked with fear at his presence, understandably so: R is shambling, moaning and looks like a corpse, and, in the past, zombies ate her mom.  You wonder how the film can possibly going to make this relationship believable.  But Hoult plays R with a rock solid devotion to Julie that’s immediately touching.  Understandably given their respective situations neither R or Julie are especially extroverted which makes their relationship attractively humble, just two unlikely people randomly thrown together in a mixed-up world. 

As the two grow closer to each other R begins to regain his humanity.  Some of the grosser elements of his features begin to heal, he’s shocked when he realises he can feel cold and gradually he can speak more clearly.   If you think this all sounds a bit cheesy you’re right.  It’s literally a straightforward case of ‘love saves the day’, but you know what?  Cheesy as it is, it’s cheese that works. 

 Much of the time ‘Warm Bodies’ doesn’t take itself very seriously; it’s a light-hearted comedy, one that’s not afraid to poke fun at its outlandish premise.  So it’s a surprise when the film becomes genuinely moving.  There’s a beautiful sequence when a group of zombies see R and Julie holding hands and don’t know quite how to react, followed by scenes where they begin to remember painful glimpses of their former lives.    The message that all you need to pull yourself out of mindless zombieism is love and communication is conveyed about as subtly as a shotgun blast to the head, but hell, every other zombie film is a neverending nilhilistic nightmare, why can’t one be sweetly dippy?

More importantly, ‘Warm Bodies’ neatly subverts the themes of the zombie genre, explaining that hard-bitten ruthless individualism is the root of what causes mindless undead monsters in the first place.  In pretty much every other piece of zombie media, zombies are mindless human-shaped walking targets, vehicles for people to work out their psychotic impulses on without guilt.  This film points out how fucked up those impulses are, explaining that though the rest of the human race might sometimes seem like a mindless, terrifying mass, it’s communication, co-operation and understanding that saves the day, not chainsaws and crowbars.

I enjoyed ‘Warm Bodies’ far more than I expected.  My expectations weren’t high, mainly because the marketing campaign is absolutely godawful, but the film won me over almost instantly.  If I’d have known it was directed by Jonathan Levine, whose last film was the excellent ‘50/50’, I’d have been more optimistic going in.  But ‘Warm Bodies’ is a solid film in practically every regard from start to finish, only wobbling slightly with some dodgy CG characters towards the end.  It feels strange saying it, but this zombie film is the perfect Valentine’s date.


‘Warm Bodies’ is on general release from the 8th of February.

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