Of all the boogie monsters and creepy creatures in our public consciousness, the zombie is the most metaphorical by virtue of being the most inflexible. All the other monsters are too human: Vampires and werewolves and Frankenstein's monsters—they're all too motivated by reason, by desire, by upward inflections of something we can recognize. You can deal with them. Zombies just plod ahead, dumbly, unburdened by intelligence or sentient thought, just mindlessly lurching toward their next meal, or lurching toward nothing, it doesn't really matter. They travel in packs but don't know why. They spend days walking around in circles accomplishing nothing. They remain lost in their internal unknown world, connecting with nothing and no one. They're less than human, which is why they're such a great metaphor for us. We all feel like zombies sometimes.
That's another reason I've always loved zombie movies: They play by a very specific set of rules. Sure, they change from movie to movie: Maybe the zombies are fast or maybe they're slow; maybe you become a zombie from a bite or maybe you simply become one when you die; maybe it's caused by a virus or maybe it's caused by a government experiment gone wrong. But everybody involved knows the rules and doesn't alter them: You have to shoot them in the head, and they can never return to their human state. There's a helplessness to zombie movies that's universally appealing: All zombie movies are really about the apocalypse, about everything in society being stripped away, about a world without hope.
Which is why I was so surprised by how much I enjoyed Jonathan Levine's Warm Bodies, the first zombie romantic comedy that's ever existed, and probably the last. The central premise of Warm Bodies flies in the face of all other zombie movies: You can cure zombies simply ... through love. It's a zombie movie that's the opposite of a zombie movie, which is a reason to sorta love it.
We follow R, a young zombie (played by Nicholas Hoult, a talented young actor who as a child played Hugh Grant's ward in About a Boy) who is trapped within his own shambling, brain-hungry zombie body. He can't remember anything about his former life, but he does display unusually human characteristics, like listening to Guns N' Roses's "Patience" and admiring the watches of the people he's about to eat. He takes the next step forward when he meets Juliet (Teresa Palmer), a human whose life he saves and begins to fall for. (To be fair, it's mostly because he learns so much about her personality by eating her ex-boyfriend's brains. Whatever works.) As the two grow closer, R begins to show more human traits, and eventually, his heart begins to slowly beat again. Other zombies notice and begin to feel their own heartbeats ... and damned if we don't have a love apocalypse on our hands.
The movie is impressively good-spirited, especially for a zombie movie; this isn't the first zombie movie in which you find yourself sympathizing more with the dead than with the living (the recent George Romero zombie movies have almost exclusively done this), but this is the first one in which you find yourself cheering when zombies and humans start fighting side-by-side. (There are other, meaner zombies called "Bonies" whose hearts are long gone.) It all starts with R and Juliet—the Shakespeare undertones are a bit overdone—who realize how much they mean not only to each other, but humanity as a whole.
The movie is mostly fun, though, with another inspired turn by Rob Corddry—who has made a habit of terrific performances in small, bad movies (Butter, Cedar Rapids)—as R's zombie buddy who works his way back to life a bit more slowly than R does. (The movie also has John Malkovich as the scariest girlfriend's father imaginable.) It gets real mileage out of its own metaphor, letting zombieism stand in for any young person feeling trapped in his or her life and thinking something out there has to be better, that there has to be some way out. It somehow gets away with a PG-13 rating despite, you know, being a zombie movie, and even has a fun climax in Montreal's Olympic Stadium, which might tickle some old Expos fans still hanging around out there.
Honestly, zombies might be the most versatile movie franchise imaginable. We've had zombie comedies, zombie romances, zombie high zombie drama, horror, and even a zombie movie for kids. I think the only genre left for zombies not to conquer is the documentary. Give it time.
Grierson & Leitch is a regular column about the movies. Follow us on Twitter, @griersonleitch.