Saturday, December 19, 2015

WARM BODIES (2013): Reenvisioning the Zombie as "the Other"

Nicolas Hoult in WARM BODIES

Zombie movie fans:  Did you ever wonder what it would feel like to be a zombie? Seems like it could be boring and lonely, right?  And there's no way out, either. Kind of a hopeless situation -- or is it?

These are the types of questions that prompted author Isaac Marion to write a short story from the point-of-view of a young male zombie. After he posted the text on his website, he was surprised at the positive response from readers. He had been doubtful about the viability of the story idea.

Little did he know that the story would attract the attention of a producer who had just left a major production firm to start her own company. With her encouragement,  he expanded his story into a full-length novel, Warm Bodies. Shopped around the film industry, the story was considered so promising that Morton was able to sell the film option rights while the novel was still an unpublished manuscript. Jonathan Levine wrote and directed the resulting film adaptation, a genre-bending, horror romantic comedy: WARM BODIES (2013, PG-13, Summit Entertainment).

Theatrical Poster for WARM BODIES (2013)
Theatrical Poster for WARM BODIES (2013)

Starring Nicholas HoultTeresa Palmer, and John Malkovich, the film opens with a voice-over summary of a zombie apocalypse that has taken place.  The voice is that of the story's protagonist, R (Hoult). He recounts the beginning of his post-apocalyptic existence, which he spends shuffling around Montreal's airport with other zombies and the Boneys, the skeleton-like monsters into which the undead eventually degenerate.

R, however, is different.  Unlike the stereotypical zombie, he has an urge to relate to others, however difficult that can be for a reanimated corpse.  He has even made a friend of sorts, M (Rob Corddry), with whom he exchanges grunts in a hilarious scene at an airport bar.

R and M at the airport bar in WARM BODIES

But this is not enough to satisfy R.  Fortunately, he meets Julie (Palmer), whom he rescues from a zombie attack (but only after eating her boyfriend's brains).  His behavior shocks M, who (with R) is part of a group of zombies that wipes out the rest of Julie's paramilitary team.  The team had been sent out on a scavenging mission by Julie's father, Grigio (Malkovich), the leader of the remainder of the human species, which has retreated for safety to a walled city.

Nevertheless, R and some of his zombie acquaintances (particularly M) soon begin to be influenced by the change in R that occurs during the course of his relationship with Julie.  Initially terrified, Julie gradually comes to have sympathy for R's plight. When R and other zombies begin to become more human (or "exhume," in the language of the story), the Boneys plot to hunt down R and Julie and to launch a massive attack on the humans in their fortified city.  Julie must decide whether to risk telling her father about the changes in the zombie population and the imminent attack by the Boneys.

The Bonies in WARM BODIES

This is a story that could get silly and unbelievable quickly, so kudos are due to writer/director Levine, Marion, and the cast of WARM BODIES that it does not.  Part of this success is due to the film's sense of humor, which includes situational comedy (R trying to behave like a human; Julie trying to act like a zombie), sight gags (R reading a copy of Us magazine with Kim Kardashian on the cover; zombies mechanically performing their former roles, such as the screener at the airport security checkpoint), the juxtaposition of songs in the soundtrack to the film's action, and dream sequences.

Another reason that I think this film works is the subtle way in which it gets its message across. The product of an industry which considers Western Union a more appropriate medium for sending a message, WARM BODIES reveals (at least to me) why "zombie apocalypse" films (such as "World War Z") have been such popular box office draws. Although they are supposed to be scary, zombie movies are reassuring to people in societies that are coping with postmodern paranoia. These films allow viewers to escape the ambiguity of reality, in which there is a plethora of potential "enemies," by entering into a world that has solved the question of who the dangerous Other is. It's humans against the undead.

Like all Others we fear and hate in the real world, movie zombies are dehumanized.  Unlike all the Others we fear and hate, they are a clear and present danger to humanity's existence.  As a result, one can blow their heads off with impunity. Indeed, killing zombies is a righteous act for humans in a post-zombie apocalypse world.

That is, it was -- before WARM BODIES came along. This film reintroduces the real-life uncertainty about whether the Other is really totally other, completely inhuman, and therefore beneath contempt. In fact, the zombies in WARM BODIES find themselves caught in the middle as they begin to change and start demonstrating human qualities. The Boneys hate them because they are no longer attacking, destroying, and eating humans.  The humans doubt the validity of their emergent humanity and require a considerable amount of convincing (in Grigio's case, at the end of a gun barrel) to believe it.

Nevertheless, it is in this gray area -- between good and evil -- where real-life human beings have to function on a day-to-day basis.  I wonder whether we can make the right decision when we confront our own fears of those who are different from us, the "zombies" of our daily lives.  In case the reader believes that I am over-intellectualizing WARM BODIES, I will point out that the story-line and the characters' names (e.g., R = Romeo, M = Mercutio, Julie = Juliet) are based loosely on those of Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet, which has much to do with conflict between two familes who consider each other to be dangerous Others. They make peace only after Romeo and Juliet are dead.

This post appeared in its original form on a defunct legacy blog. TFK has revised and edited it for reposting on this blog for Twitter's "Archive Day".