Directed by Jonathan Levine
(Lionsgate, 2013, 1 hr 37 minutes)
When the Warm Bodies DVD arrived in the mail, my wife and I had both forgotten why we’d ordered it. We’re not generally fans of zombie movies and we had forgotten the trailer plot specifically.
Soon into the opening scenes, however, we knew what had attracted us. This zombie movie has a ton of soul—and a ton to say about mindful attention. Sure, it’s got its share of the usual zombie treat of grueling flesh eaters. But this was a zombie movie with a plot line that is more than skin deep.
“R” (played by Nicholas Hoult) is a zombie. The vivid, stark, even brooding cinematography graphically thrusts us into a landscape where nothing works. R lives in a broken down airliner still parked in a broken down airport, but that’s not the worst of it.
Reviewers have noted the Romeo and Juliet quality of the movie. We do have a “mixed” romance with two warring families; one is a “living” family and is one of the zombies. But this conflict is more than a lethal social conflict. Like Frankenstein, this film moves beyond the mere pathetic, into pathos. Also, like the hand-made monster in Frankenstein, the world of Warm Bodies drips with decay and chaos—where lives are cobbled together from fear and resentment.
But Warm Bodies adds another dimension. It makes the connection clear between a passionless, lifeless, loveless life and our lack of awareness. R is largely unaware of his life, his lack of meaningful social contacts, living space, future or past—let alone his own hopes and desires.
It’s the lack of awareness that insulates them from a real life and isolates them from others. They experience just a verisimilitude of life. It’s the refusal of awareness that dehumanizes them. The zombies careen into each other; they nod and they grunt at each other. Memory is broken too. “R” can’t remember who he is. He can’t remember his job. He can’t even remember his name—just the first letter, “R.” Nor can they speak. They have lost their capacity to communicate or to relate to each other. They cannot know others and they cannot know themselves.
But R is “bought back” by his “Juliet.” Julie (played by Teresa Palmer), comes from the living world. Her world is separated from R’s world by a guarded wall. She defies her father, sneaks through a gigantic barrier of steel and wood into the zombie’s world and visits zombie land. That is just the beginning of her conflict and her triumph.
What marks Warm Bodies apart from many monster movies is that it shows how both zombies and the living suffer from the same bloodless, disconnected, alienated condition. Both zombies and the “living” are dead inside, but for different reasons. The living world, represented by Julie’s father, General Grigio (played by John Malkovich) is dead from rage and resentment. He, too, is disconnected and disengaged from himself. They think their safety and salvation rests in killing zombies.
R and the living are both redeemed because they decide to make connections. This takes incredible courage. The film uses symbols to point to the grace and power of authentic connections. In Frankenstein, humans wanted to make life, but only made a thing horrid to its maker and to the one who was made. It, too, could not speak and could not remember. Finally, the creature was abandoned to the tender mercies of villagers driven to kill by merciless fear. In both Romeo and Juliet and Frankenstein, the cure is connection, connection with others and connection with something and someone beyond themselves.
Julie (played by Teresa Palmer) is the catalyst for the courage to take the risks towards this connection. She boldly defies both her father and social convention and psychic isolation to breach the wall. Her curiosity and compassion express the transcendent awareness that that animates R and allows R to feel and to express love.
Blood is a central symbol. As R becomes alive, he begins to bleed. Blood, here, is not just the symbol of death and of life; it is a symbol of awareness, of attention to himself and his environment. Of course, R can now die; he can feel pain; he can feel!
Warm Bodies is a well crafted and entertaining film. There are no wasted scenes and the movie’s pace slows where it is necessary, but promotes the action and suspense efficiently.
It’s also an instructional film. It has a point to make about the necessity to summon the courage and grace to keep alive and present to our lives. It’s a cautionary tale against taking our humanity, the capacity to feel and to respond, for granted. It reminds us that “zombies” are not different from us in kind, only in consciousness.