LOS ANGELES — Warm Bodies, the latest permutation of the zombie screen phenomenon, places heart over horror and romantic teen angst over sharp social commentary. The low gore quotient and emphasis on young love might disappoint genre purists, but for those open to the idea of a gently goofy mash-up, the film is strong on atmosphere and offers likably low-key, if somewhat bland, charms.
Working from Isaac Marion’s young-adult novel, writer-director Jonathan Levine has devised a feature that’s his highest-concept production to date, yet still somehow his least contrived. His affinity for low-key male coming-of-age stories, demonstrated in The Wackness and 50/50, lends itself to the saga of an undead sensitive guy who falls for a real-live girl.
The story’s dystopian versions of Romeo and Juliet are Nicholas Hoult’s R — he can’t remember his full name, or anything else about his pre-apocalypse existence — and Teresa Palmer’s Julie, whose meet-cute involves a shoot-’em-up that ends badly for Julie’s duty-bound boyfriend (Dave Franco).
As R’s voice-over narration explains, it’s been eight years since an unspecified plague devastated humankind. Corpses, as the slacker-ish zombies are called, feed on what’s left of the living. A more extreme mutation called “boneys” — skeletal creatures that are an effective but not quite menacing combination of stunt work and CGI — will eat anything, including corpses.
Julie helps to defend the humans’ walled-off Green Zone as a member of the militia organized by her widowed father (John Malkovich, a compellingly single-minded authority figure). She winds up on the other side of the wall after a smitten R saves her from his fellow corpses and spirits her back to his home base.
The portrait of adolescent alienation touches glancingly on degrees of conformity, but Levine has no interest in crossing into the political-allegory territory of George Romero’s zombie classics. Here the ennui sometimes seeps into the narrative in a way that leaves stretches of the movie enervated and galumphing like a corpse.
As far as the latter goes, Hoult’s shuffling zombie perambulation is particularly good, as is his facial expressiveness in scenes where R is essentially preverbal. The British actor and Aussie Palmer handle their dialogue with believable American accents, zombie inflection included.
Rated PG-13, 97 minutes.