Warm is the ultimate ’tweener temperature. It’s not “hot” or “cold”; it rejects extreme or definitive categorization. It’s the thermometer equivalent of “meh.” So, it’s fitting that writer/director Jonathon Levine’s film sports the noncommittal word as the lead in its title. Warm Bodies is completely OK. It is resplendently fine. It is immeasurably pretty good. Sadly, it really hoped to be great.
Coming up with a fresh take on the zombie genre these days is like trying to do a fresh cover of Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah”: If you can think of it, someone beat you to it. Less funny than Shaun of the Dead and less romantic than Twilight, Warm Bodies is a romance novel by way of George Romero fan fiction. Nicholas Hoult stars as “R,” a zombie with some retained measure of humanity. When he meets Julie (Teresa Palmer), the human part of him Hulks out and restores itself.
What’s more, it seems to be contagious. M (Rob Corddry), a fellow walking corpse, rekindles his humanity simply by watching R and Julia get friendly. Of course, Julia’s father, a military leader and no-nonsense zombie killer ( John Malkovich), isn’t buying any of it. Although “your boyfriend is a reanimated, necrotic pile of flesh” is a really good reason for a father to disapprove, Julia persists in supporting the suddenly more-human zombies in their fight against the “boneys,” which are zombies who feast on zombies.
Warm Bodies has its moments, but tends to squander them. Corddry’s improvisation is distracting, Hoult’s lack of charisma is palpable, and Palmer’s impression of a Kristen Stewart who sometimes smiles is derivative and lame. Still, Levine has talent and keeps the ship afloat, even if it means bailing water out and eventually doggy paddling. The main problem is that genre-bending can’t be the end game. Shaun of the Dead works brilliantly because it is simultaneously a pitch-perfect comedy and a wonderfully tense zombie thriller. Warm Bodies is neither.
And then there’s the inclusion of Malkovich, which feels like little more than distracting stunt casting. He’s there to chew up the contractually required amount of scenery and little else. It’s entirely possible that Isaac Marion’s novel is a delightful sendup of zombie fiction with romance drizzled on top and characters worth remembering. But the film boils everything down to a simplistic, easily forgettable base level, never firing fully on a single cylinder, let alone all of them.
It’s not that Warm Bodies is bad. It isn’t. It’s just not good … or bad. And sometimes it’s better to make a flat-out bad film than a coldly calculated marginal one. Warm Bodies doesn’t feel like a bridge between two disparate genres so much as it feels like an attempt at blatant cross-demographic appeal. To see it is to imagine a room full of suits congratulating one another at finding a way to get opposite fan bases to pay for tickets to the same show.
Two out of four stars
— This review first appeared in The Reader of Omaha, Neb.