The American zombie movie was born in October 1968 with the release of George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead, and it’s a measure of how subversive that film and its sequels truly were that zombies only became palatable to the major studios in 2004, when a kid named Zack Snyder stripped Dawn of the Dead of its original class-conscious, anti-consumerist premise–inverted it, even, by making a zombie movie that pandered to the shopping-mall multiplex crowd rather than ripping into it. Given its success, it’s hard to believe it has taken almost another ten years for the sub-genre to be completely transformed by a Hollywood establishment that’s turned so timid and equivocal in its thrill-seeking ways that it begrudges even the zombies their killing sport. Yes, somebody somewhere decided that what zombies really need, more than forty years on, is a redemption story. Director Jonathan Levine doesn’t put a stake through the heart of the sub-genre, quite, but he does something that might be worse. With Warm Bodies, he’s made the first middle-aged zombie film.
It’s not that Warm Bodies, which may as well be titled Romeo and Juliet and Zombies, is an especially bad or pernicious film. But it is an exceptionally bland one. I understand that some viewers read it in part as a parody of the Twilight franchise, which could be an affirmative defense to charges of blandness if the Twilight franchise were in some way genuinely worthy of parody, or if Warm Bodies seemed genuinely interested in critiquing those movies’ attitudes. (The picture does borrow the Twilight saga’s ace cinematographer, Javier Aguirresrobe, which goes a long way towards explaining the aptness of the comparisons.) It’s definitely cuter than the Twilight films, with a conceit that has zombie hearts growing three sizes after just a few days in the presence of Julie (Teresa Palmer), a pretty young thing who finds herself kidnapped, essentially, by a sexy boy zombie known only as “R” (Nicholas Hoult), whose voiceover articulates his helpless frustration at being trapped inside his shambling, decaying shell of a body. (“What am I doing with my life? I’m so pale. I should get out more. I should eat better.”) By means of said narration, R introduces us to the important peripheral character of “M,” an undead lounge rat played with smarmy vigour by Rob Corddry, as well as to the concept of the feared Boneys, a skeletal variety of undead much spookier and fiercer than a mere zombie.
If all of this sounds delightfully clever to you, you may have enough patience for this mildly funny film and the quirks of its barely-sketched characters. For example, R himself doesn’t have much of a personality, particularly as rom-com protagonists go. He’s good-looking and cleans up well and that’s about as far as we get. He makes some noise about being “conflicted” with regard to eating human victims, but we only ever see him bite into a single one–it just happens to be Julie’s impressively-eyebrowed boyfriend, Perry (Dave Franco). Lucky for R, Julie is not so choked up about Perry’s death, leaving her more receptive than you’d suspect to the attentions of her new gentleman zombie pal, who smuggles her onto an empty jetliner on the tarmac of an abandoned airport, advising her in grunts and groans that can barely be parsed as human language that she needs to stay on board with him for a few days, until the rest of his zombie buddies conveniently forget she’s around. (They can smell her, and he has to smear her with zombie-juice in order to help her shuffle from place to place amongst the undead.)
Julie is, on evidence, pretty much the coolest chick on the planet. Not only does she know how to use a gun (while holding it out at arm’s length, behind her back, running at full-tilt-boogie), but she’s also not afraid of zombies, and she barely hesitates to befriend her shabby new buddy, going so far as to defend him from discovery by her father (John Malkovich), a strait-laced leader of the local anti-zombie brigade whose paternal instincts are so unfussy that he allows her to venture out on guerrilla missions in zombie territory. Even when she susses out that R was the one who had her old boyfriend for a nosh, she’s not overly troubled. As a romantic entanglement, it’s at once goofy and unreasonable, yet it’s one of the things I did appreciate about Warm Bodies, in all its silliness: The women here have jobs to do. Julie and her gal pal Nora (Analeigh Tipton), both packing heat, eventually team up to protect R from zombie-hunters, and they’re instrumental to the eventual uprising against the Boneys. Their scenes together rev the film up a bit–Julie and Nora evince more chemistry than Julie and R ever muster.
Warm Bodies remains mildly amusing throughout, and romantic-comedy aficionados may enjoy the way it deploys generic conventions under highly unusual circumstances. The devil, though, is in the details, and this film doesn’t have any. The broad strokes are in place, but Levine’s screenplay (adapted from a novel by Isaac Marion, itself expanded from a threadbare short story) is missing any of the specifics of character and setting that make a movie memorable. It doesn’t help that, while the movie boasts the abandoned Montréal-Mirabel International Airport as an expansive shooting location, it went to great lengths to disguise the actual city of Montreal, overlaying a digital skyline that’s vaguely reminiscent of Philadelphia in the exterior establishing shots. Warm Bodies is also mostly bloodless in both the figurative and literal sense–the latter a symptom, no doubt, of the required-for-marketing-purposes PG-13 that makes any zombie movie, even a zom-rom-com, a bit of a stretch. And although there’s one mildly titillating scene that has a rain-soaked Palmer stripping to bra and panties while R makes wide-eyed hubba-hubba faces from the spot his zombie ass has been relegated to on the bedroom floor, the picture steers well clear of Jorg Buttgereit territory. That’s a shame, too: A few hints of poor taste might cut the cloying sweetness nicely, not to mention eke another laugh or two out of the material. (I’m sure Shakespeare, who was never above a dick joke, would approve.)
The only potentially personal touch I detected in the material was Levine’s apparent fondness for outmoded technology. R has a working turntable (and LPs by John Waite, Bruce Springsteen, and Guns N’ Roses, for starters) wired to speakers inside his airplane hideaway, while Julie takes his portrait with a Polaroid camera. In the margins of other scenes, we see a drive-in theatre screen and a discarded CRT monitor. These are odd, incongruous touches for a film that otherwise feels very of-the-moment in its relation to pop-culture trends. My first thought was that Levine was simply looking to give his loverboy some hipster credentials to go with his slacker persona. More charitably, I decided that Levine, whose 2008 The Wackness was all about the evocation of a specific time and place in not-so-distant history (and who shot Warm Bodies on 35mm film, after all), may be expressing feelings of nostalgia as the media of the present becomes the format of the past and ages into the fading aesthetic history of an undead artform, a digital apocalypse that makes analog zombies of us all. And in all that, he managed to make me feel old, too. Fucker. You know, middle age is a bitch.
THE BLU-RAY DISC
Warm Bodies arrives on a fully-packed Blu-ray with excellent A/V augmented by supplementary material–HD where applicable–that takes longer to dig through than the feature proper, and that’s without counting the audio commentary. The main attraction is a fantastic 2.40:1, 1080p transfer that reproduces seemingly every subtle nuance of colour and shading in the filmed image, from the pale, near-monochromatic look of the early scenes in zombie territory to the increasingly saturated and naturalistic palette as humans and zombies begin to have a positive effect on each other. Contrast levels vary somewhat from sequence to sequence but always in a way that feels appropriate to the cinematography. While the visibility of grain varies depending on the shot, the image is very filmlike all the way through. It’s a handsome presentation.
Audio is equally impressive. We get a full-on 7.1 DTS-HD MA track, and although the soundscape remains firmly front and centre for most of the movie, it does open up impressively for the song score (tracks like “Patience” by Guns N’ Roses, “Missing You” by John Waite, and “Midnight City” by M83 are mixed fairly liberally into the side and rear channels so they seem to hang in the middle of the room), as well as for the film’s action sequences, during which you can clearly hear zombies a-comin’ from all sides. Some of the instrumentation from the orchestral score is also steered to the surrounds, and ambient sounds percolate there throughout. Low-frequency thump and rumble is present, though the soundmix doesn’t lean heavily on the subwoofer to get its point across. This disc sounds great without overachieving.
The full-length commentary is a so-so affair that sits Levine, Palmer, and Hoult down in a studio for a non-stop gabfest about what a great time they had making the movie. It’s not that I don’t believe them, it’s just that there’s not a whole lot of interest beyond the three of them congratulating each other and various fantastic collaborators on their work. Levine does the requisite director’s job of pointing out day-for-night shots, describing how reshoots were used to simplify what had become a convoluted narrative, and giving the second-unit credit for its fairly extensive work on the project. He also mentions the $1 million price tag on a Kanye West/Jay-Z track that kept it from being used and thanks Eric Roth for suggesting a scene that deepened Corddry’s character. It’s a passable session that gives you a better feeling for the three personalities involved.
More informative are the nearly 100 minutes of documentary features, broken down into short segments that range between 7 and 16 minutes in length. They play out very much in the spirit of the Summit marketing department, so expect helpful information to be doled out alongside heavy doses of reminders of the general excellence of Warm Bodies and the awesomeness of its production team. “Boy Meets, Er, Doesn’t Eat Girl” spends about 10 minutes recounting the original short story and novel as well as the scripting and development process, with contributions from producer Bruna Papandrea, executive producer Laurie Webb, novelist Isaac Marion, and Levine, who notes, “When I read the book, it was so wildly creative.” Next, “R&J” runs a little over 16 minutes and emphasizes the magic of romance, focusing on the lead roles and how they were played. “What I love,” someone says, without laughing, “is that romance fans as well as zombie fans can get something out of this movie.” Another 16-minute-long featurette, “A Little Less Dead,” looks at the supporting roles, bringing Corddry, Franco, and Tipton to the fore and mentioning the film’s zombie school, where the actors learned how to act undead. Malkovich appears, briefly, to mention that his kids don’t give a shit about what he does for a living, but the highlight of this section is probably Corddry cracking wise.
Next up is just over 10 minutes of “Extreme Zombie Make-Over,” with makeup-effects artist Adrien Morot describing his efforts to transform Hoult into “an undead James Dean” and bragging over the shot-to-shot consistency of the blue veins zigzagging across Hoult’s face, which seem to be drawn on but are actually applied more systematically (and simply). “A Wreck in Progress” (15 mins.) finds Levine offering matter-of-fact plaudits to Montreal’s “abandoned airport, awesome strip clubs, and great food” and the Australian Palmer shivering audibly as she remembers the cold temperatures during one of the exterior night shoots. Another 10 minutes are dedicated to “Bustin’ Caps,” a look at the picture’s various stunts, including the weapons used, that draws attention to the fact that, because Warm Bodies is PG-13, it’s probably nowhere near as much fun as it might have been. Second-unit director Stephen Woolfenden says the most violent scenes were filmed in “super-gory, gory, we-think-this-is-ok, and safe” versions, pending review by the MPAA.
So where is this super-gory footage? Hint: not in any of the nine deleted scenes on this disc, which run 11 long minutes in total. There’s nothing here of note beyond a moment of Corddry improv, although these elisions do shed a bit of light on some of the decisions made in the cutting room, in addition to the second-act reshoots discussed in the commentary. Selectable secondary audio has Levine explaining why certain bits were cut–this scene was redundant, these scenes were “cheesy,” etc. The quality is good, though the picture isn’t fully colour-graded, the top and bottom are studded with timecode and other blocks of burned-in data, and some VFX are unfinished. At one point, a monster attack is replaced with subtitles reading, “Boney pulls guard away,” and “Boney eats guard.”
But wait–there’s more. Seven minutes of “Beware the Boneys” covers the film’s visual effects shots, from concept art to clay models to motion-capture and CG animation. If your eyes haven’t crossed yet, this section closes out with “Whimsical Sweetness,” a collection of jittery, barely watchable “home movies” captured on set by Teresa Palmer’s cell phone, or Flip camera, or something. I can see how, if you were infatuated with the actress, these clips could seem like the best thing ever. And I give her credit for being apparently the only one on set to take the remotest interest in cinematographer Aguirresrobe, who makes his only appearance within these extras here. (Malkovich shows up long enough to give Palmer a dirty look as he strides by.)
Also included is a five-minute episode of the Web video show “Screen Junkies” called “Zombie Acting Tips with Rob Corddry,” who’s made up to look like his undead character. It’s harmless enough, though it doesn’t count as much of an extra since anyone who cares can dial it up on YouTube. (Hoult, Palmer, Franco, and Tipton also appear.) Finally, there’s a five minute “Shrug & Groan Gag Reel,” in which Hoult mugs for the camera, someone forgets to turn his cell phone off, and Corddry cracks everyone up. It’s mainly harmless goofy shit, but Hoult eventually makes a rape joke as he drags Dave Franco off a table that is unexpectedly vulgar and impressively creepy no matter how you slice it. I’m surprised it made it onto the disc. Capping things off is the movie’s two-and-a-half-minute U.S. trailer, joining startup home-video trailers for The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn Part 2, The Hunger Games, and The Perks of Being a Wallflower. Digital and Ultraviolet copies of Warm Bodies come bundled with the Blu-ray.