Before he met her, he felt dead inside. Dead outside, too. And after he met her, he still felt dead. But he was in love.
That’s the wry premise behind the horror-comedy “Warm Bodies,” which goes light on the horror and heavy on the comedy. R (Nicholas Hoult) seems in some way like any awkward teen — uncomfortable in his own body, eager to connect with other people but unsure how. The catch is that that body is rotting away — R is a zombie, and keeps a running voiceover monologue of his woes in the film’s clever early scenes. “What’s wrong with me?” he bemoans. “I should eat better.”
While the humans are safely esconced inside a walled city, the zombies roam morosely around the local airport, perhaps because that was the place they felt the least human while they were alive, so it’s the place they feel the most human while they were dead? R’s days are spent grunting at the airport bar with his best friend M (Rob Corddry) and staying clear of another breed of zombies, the skeletal Boneys, who have ripped away their last vestiges of humanity.
On a mission to find some food (i.e. us), R stumbles across a band of humans, including Julie (Teresa Palmer), with whom he’s instantly smitten. He gets close to her the only way he knows how — by kidnapping her, and by eating her boyfriend’s brains, which contain all his memories of her. Not exactly a “meet-cute,” but writer-director Jonathan Levine (“50/50”) is sly about finding all the laughs in the idea of a human-zombie teen romance while still making it seem sweet and faintly believable.
By the way, if the names R and Julie don’t tip you off as to Levine’s source material for his tale of ill-fated lovers, perhaps the balcony scene will. Like the Montagues and the Capulets, both M and Julie’s father Grigio (John Malkovich) loathe the opposite side of the dead-undead line. And R and Julie have to overcome the prejudices of both their kinds to stay together, especially when they learn that the blush of romantic love might be enough to reverse the zombie apocalypse.
The film barely earns its R rating, and horror fans might be disappointed that “Warm Bodies” is almost gore-free; you see much worse every week on “The Walking Dead.” On the other hand, “Twilight” fans looking for the next supernatural teen romance might be bummed out that the film’s romantic hero, although a cutie, has rotting flesh and a little brain matter caught between his teeth.
But for the rest of us, “Warm Bodies” hits an appealing sweet spot, sending up what we know about zombie movies while still being awfully sweet, with Hoult’s halting zombie and Palmer’s jaded human making for a very likable couple. This is a quirky, fun film that lives for moments when Corddry, trying to console R after a romantic setback, shakes his decaying head and grunts, “Bitches, man.”
“Warm Bodies” opens today at Point, Eastgate and Star Cinemas in Madison. R for violence and language, 1:37.