Even with Hollywood's magic touch, zombies may never beat out those seductively stylish vampires for a Vanity Fair cover, but something about the unfashionable undead makes them ripe for irony in the right hands — so many possibilities lurk behind those blank stares.
The right hands at the moment seem to belong to Jonathan Levine. The writer-director certainly has a good grip on what to do with those cold souls in "Warm Bodies," a surprisingly sentimental mash-up starring Nicholas Hoult, Teresa Palmer and John Malkovich.
FOR THE RECORD:
"Warm Bodies": In the Feb. 1 Calendar section, a review of the movie "Warm Bodies" referred to actress Teresa Palmer's role in "last year's 'Love & Honor.' " "Love & Honor" was released internationally but has not yet played in the U.S.
Adapted from novelist Isaac Marion's playful romance among the ruined, "Warm Bodies" stays true enough to the book — and rom-com conventions. Boy meets girl. Boy falls for girl. Lack of a pulse and bad hygiene keep them apart …
PHOTOS: 'Walking Dead' and the many meanings of zombies
But in doing a little genre bending of romantic schmaltz and horror cheese — some fundamental zombie mythology is turned on its head — the film breathes amusing new life into both.
The differences surface as soon as the movie turns up the volume on the inner voice of R, a slacker zombie (Hoult) who spends his days thinking about the meaning of life now that he's forgotten his — except that his name began with an "R." Our narrator is left with only the memories of the latest cerebral cortex he's consumed as he shuffles through the rubble of a world brought to its knees by a zombie-creating virus.
In the sometime-distant future of "Warm Bodies," the virus has split the populace into humans, zombies and the super creepy "boneys," which really doesn't quite capture what happens when zombies can't stand the skin they're in. Armed guards and a giant wall separate the decaying life forms from civilization, otherwise known as dinner. A Big Brother-ish militia headed by the Big Brother-ish Malkovich, who goes by the name Grigio in "Warm Bodies," controls the remains of the metropolis, but, you know, Grigio is just being John Malkovich.
Even in apocalyptic times, the young act out. Grigio's daughter Julie (Palmer), a new recruit to his army, is ready to hunt down zombies, but her authority issues remain. It doesn't take long for her to run into R. Though it's not exactly love at first sight — she's blasting a machine gun and he's noshing on brains — something clicks. But it's a war, and so it takes time to light the flame. In fact Levine has put the movie on zombie time — very slow. The battle breaks become a good excuse to entertain us with the implications of a zombie crush — awkward flirting.
PHOTOS: Hollywood Backlot moments
Despite their differences, R and Julie make a nice couple. He's a good listener, she's got a lot on her mind. And how can I say this? Blank looks become Hoult, and those lanky limbs make the lumbering and lurching quite believable. When words fail him — zombies are hard-pressed to move beyond a grunt — his shrug says a thousand words as Hoult finds the right blend of slacker pathos and indifference.
"Warm Bodies" must come as a relief for Palmer, who has had a string of forgettable roles as "the blond" or, more typically, "the other blond" — as in "I Am Number Four," where she was Number 6.... Even in last year's "Love & Honor," co-starring with Liam Hemsworth, Palmer was primarily the prize. In "Bodies," the actress has a chance to prove she's more than a pretty face, with a nice comic turn at playing the undead, and a nicer one at playing a girl falling in love.
Messing around with the romantic equation in unexpected and improbable ways is becoming a Levine specialty. A few years ago, his "50/50" found humor and heart in cancer, threading the needle between a guy fighting cancer and at the same time searching for love.
"Warm Bodies" takes off in other equally interesting directions. What Levine's films have in common is a kind of decency and dignity the characters are given without devolving into mush. While there are deeper ideas being toyed with — what makes life worth living, for one — ultimately "Warm Bodies" is content to figure out what a girl wants. And that, my fellow zombies, is enough.
PHOTOS AND MORE
VIDEO: The making of 'Argo,' 'Les Miz' and more
ENVELOPE: The latest awards buzz
PHOTOS: NC-17 movies: Ratings explained