We just finished suffering through the vampire romance craze, and yet I'm afraid there is no rest for the supernaturally weary. Today marks the birth of a new breed in the young adult horror-romance trend: the zombie love story. Yes, the new film Warm Bodies, adapted from the novel by Isaac Marion, tells the Romeo & Juliet-inspired tale of a zombie named R (Nicholas Hoult) and the living girl named Julie (Teresa Palmer) with whom he falls in love. She and her young compatriots — including Dave Franco as her militaristic boyfriend and Analeigh Tipton as her snarky best friend — are out beyond the walls of their fortified, post-zombie apocalypse city when they are beset upon by R and his crew, a bunch of moaners who spend most of their time milling about the airport. R, who narrates his thoughts in voiceover that runs at the surprising speed of Charlie Kaufman in Adaptation, is immediately captivated upon setting dead eyes on Julie. Heeding some long-dormant romantic instinct, he opts to protect Julie rather than eat her, smearing her in zombie goo so the others can't smell her and grunting at her to come with him. Oh, yeah, the zombies can occasionally choke out a few words. Their ability to do so tends to increase or decrease depending on the needs of the scene.
Once R has Julie safely on his abandoned airplane full of collected knickknacks — snow globes, vintage records — the pair, of course, begins to bond. R is awfully sweet and sensitive for a brain-devouring ghoul, and Julie is... well, Julie's pretty. That's really all Julie is required to be at this point. I guess she sort of has some issues with her stern father (John Malkovich), who is the hard-nosed leader of the city's surviving humans, but it's not a defining trait or anything. We're seeing this through R's eyes and mostly Julie is just a very pretty girl. But it's good that this pretty thing is played by Palmer, who gives the non-character at least some spark and shading where a lesser starlet might simply pout prettily. Palmer's Julie is a product of the Apatow boy-comedy era, when even the hot chick has a caustic sense of humor and can bust balls with the best of 'em. For his part, Hoult grunts and glowers convincingly, and his voiceovers are neurotically charming, though he's just a little too gross to look at for as long as we're asked to look at him.
As R and Julie grow closer, something begins to change within R. His heart begins beating, he doesn't like brains anymore, he starts having dreams. Could he be changing? Well, you don't think this pretty lass is going to end up with a gross, rotting, groaning brain-eater, do you? And so the movie lurches toward its cozily convenient answer to the zombie affliction, none of it terribly surprising, but none of it exactly unwelcome either. Hoult and Palmer are sweet together and the writer/director Jonathan Levine frequently strikes the same tone of mordant wistfulness that he did in (the far superior) 50/50. A washed-out Montreal turns in a fittingly gray and ho-hum performance as Anywhere City, USA, while Tipton provides bright, if too brief, support. As does Rob Corddry, as R's best zombie friend, M. This is a sweet movie that's just darkly clever enough to glide over its rather sizable plot holes. Nothing terribly remarkable happens — a final showdown against dessicated skeleton-zombies called Bonies provides little excitement beyond the joy of hearing John Malkovich say "we have corpses and skeletons heading toward the city" — but you do root for these two brain activity-crossed lovers, which is really all the movie has to accomplish.
As January fare goes, Warm Bodies is a surprisingly perky and winning little movie. I don't think we'll have legions of fangirls wishing they could meet the zombie boy of their dreams any time soon. But maybe a few of the more perceptive kids who see the movie this weekend will notice a particular boy at their school come Monday, the one who staggers down the hall in a zombified haze of apathy and teen sullenness, and realize that, hey, there's a heart in there somewhere, just waiting to be woken up. That'd probably be phenomenon enough.