Given that vampires have become tween-dream fodder and zombies are now ubiquitous in popular culture, it was inevitable that we’d end up with a zom-rom-com sooner rather than later. Jonathan Levine’s adaptation of Isaac Marion’s novel Warm Bodies hits all the right YA-horror notes: resourceful heroine, unthreateningly dreamy hero conflicted over his brain-eating tendencies, disciplinarian dad, absent mom and a more-evil breed of zombies to root against. It’s never as twitchy or over-the-top as the Twilight films, but Levine also never strives for much more than sweetness.
Like the director’s previous film, the “cancer comedy” 50/50, Warm Bodies finds an amiable, unhurried groove and stays there, aiming low for laughs from ideas like playing John Waite’s soft-rock hit “Missing You” as the undead shuffle around an abandoned airport. There’s no more easy inroad to a mismatched romance than making loose reference to Romeo and Juliet, but that’s the direction that Marion and Levine opted for, with leads named Julie (Teresa Palmer) and R (Nicholas Hoult) — being dead, he can’t remember his full name — and giving them a balcony scene. But they don’t even milk the obvious chuckles from juxtaposing Shakespeare’s eloquence with R’s postmortem grunts. The reference is there on a purely surface level, not even requiring an acquaintance with the Cliff’s Notes.
John Malkovich is on hand as Julie’s militia-leader father, but his threat to the relationship comes late in the film and is fairly easily overcome. And an intriguing addition to the lore comes with the notion that eating victims’ brains affords the zombies a glimpse at their memories, but disappointingly little is made of it beyond a peek at Julie’s backstory. R’s default response as he begins to emerge from his zombified state and communicate is a noncommittal shrug, and Levine seems to have taken his directorial cues from that gesture.