Stories about vampires and humans mixing-and-matching existed long before the “Twilight” franchise – or “True Blood,” or “Buffy the Vampire Slayer,” or even Bram Stoker’s original “Dracula” -- appeared on the scene. But humans feeling a romantic yen for zombies? We haven’t seen so much of that. Who wants to hold hands with a pale, crusty romantic hero who communicates by grunting?
But in addition to serving up a refreshing change from the usual blood-sucking stuff, Jonathan Levine’s deft and charming horror-comedy-romance “Warm Bodies” makes you care about the unfeeling, brain-eating undead: Adapted from the novel of the same name by Isaac Marion, the picture has a deep, thumping pulse, and, considering zombies tend to move so slowly, a surprising degree of freshness and energy. The idea here is that zombies want to have feelings and memories – it’s simply that they’ve drawn the short straw in the zombie-virus department and are thus forced to drag their stiff, cold carcasses hither and thither in search of sustenance, human flesh being ideal.
Nicholas Hoult’s R – he can’t remember his old name, and he can barely form even that first consonant with his numbed-out zombie lips – is just one of those clumsy sleepwalkers. In an early voice-over monologue, R gives an account of his days: He and others like him are forced to live in a walled-off area, away from the few human beings who remain uninfected by the zombie virus. The members of this groaning class cohabitate without really connecting. Even so, R does have a best friend, M (Rob Corddry, in a performance that plumbs surprising depths, even for a guy playing a zombie); the two communicate, sort of, in a language of half-formed syllables.
R lives in an abandoned airplane, which he has furnished with the discarded bits and bobs of civilization, chief among them an old record player and a collection of LPs. (Levine puts this detail to good use, featuring source music from the likes of Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen and, perhaps most effectively, Scorpions – “Rock You Like a Hurricane” makes a surprisingly good soundtrack for the act of zombies’ climbing back toward life.) R supposedly has no feelings, nothing but the urge to feed. But he’s wistful for something he’s lost, the unnamable thing that makes us human. And when he meets pretty blond soldier girl Julie (Teresa Palmer), daughter of a militant zombie-hater (played, with amusing ultra-seriousness, by John Malkovich), something clicks deep inside.
Of course, it helps that R has eaten the brains of Julie’s boyfriend, which means he’s also absorbed the guy’s feelings and memories. And that, R explains, is why zombies eat human brains: It returns them, temporarily and only in a vague, wistful sense, to the human race.
“Warm Bodies” works because it focuses on the simplest and most dramatic angles of the story. The humans feel compelled to fight the zombies; the zombies, in turn, have to fend off vicious superzombies called Boneys. (“They’ll eat anything,” R explains morosely in his voiceover.) But those aren’t really the important issues in “Warm Bodies”: The love story between R and Julie – their names are an intentional echo of that most famous pair of long-ago lovers – is where all the dramatic tension kicks in, and there’s plenty of it. R is smitten with Julie the instant he sees her; she doesn’t warm up to him as quickly, but it’s not long before she’s assuring her best friend Nora (played by the spacy-wonderful Annaleigh Tipton) that “he’s not like other guys.”
“Warm Bodies” does offer a few squishy flesh-eating gross-outs. But Levine – whose last picture was the intriguing, if only partly effective, cancer comedy “50/50” -- is going for something more here, exploring what makes us human by contrasting it with a character who has lost all the basics and is desperate to get them back. The picture is witty and casual and observant. (R’s voice-over includes a dreamy flashback in which he recalls a time “when everyone could express themselves and enjoy each other’s company,” accompanied by an image of distracted people in a crowded mall, yakking on their cellphones.) And, as shot by Javier Aguirresarobe – who, incidentally, shot two of the “Twilight” movies, “New Moon” and “Eclipse” – the picture has a muted, dreamy vibe, though it’s still more George Romero than Nicholas Sparks.
Best of all, Hoult and Palmer are lovely together. Julie may be the unattainable blond goddess at first, but she eventually sees the beauty in the beast -- Palmer makes the transition gracefully. And Hoult, who played another kind of Beast in “X-Men: First Class,” is the kind of actor who intuitively downplays his boy-next-door good looks. His R is awkward and shambling at first, an ideal metaphor for the clumsy adolescent. But by the end of “Warm Bodies,” he’s gotten through the awkward stage. His skin looks better; his posture is more self-assured. And at long last, he has a pulse. Finally, he’s able to suffer for the sake of love, and Hoult plays it as the best feeling in the world.