Sunday, February 10, 2013


When Hollywood started making zombie movies, filmmakers used voodoo as the means of controlling the dead.  The first genuine zombie flick, "White Zombie" (1932), featured Bela Lugosi of "Dracula" infamy as a sinister zombie master who owns a sugar cane plantation and exploits zombies as his labor force.  While most zombie movies were set in the West Indies, Hollywood didn't confine its sub-genre of the horror movie strictly to the Caribbean.  For example, "Revolt of the Zombies" took place in Cambodia.  Nevertheless, standard-issue zombie movies, such as "King of the Zombies" (1941), "I Walked with a Zombie" (1943), and "Zombies on Broadway" (1936), clung to the traditional Caribbean setting.  Meantime, "Revenge of the Zombies" (1943) occurred in Louisiana.  A fiendish Nazi scientist toiled to forge zombies to supplement the ranks of Hitler's Third Reich.  Occasionally, exceptions to the rule cropped up, like the first Caped Crusader serial "Batman" (1943) where a devilish Japanese spy on American soil converted individuals into mindless zombies by means of electricity. Apparently, nobody felt like experimenting drastically with the zombie formula, aside from relocating them beyond the West Indies.

Pittsburgh-based writer & director George A. Romero reimagined the zombie formula in 1968 with his classic chiller "Night of the Living Dead." Ironically, nothing like a global apocalypse had spawned zombies until Romero conjured up such a notion.  Romeo's zombie slayers aimed for the head when they shot zombies.  The next change came about courtesy of the Italian-made epic "Nightmare City" (1980) where zombies no longer lurched about but now ran like track superstars.  Aside from this minor formula tweaking, the biggest difference in post "Night of the Living Dead" zombie sagas has been the use of either an apocalypse or a virus to trigger an outbreak of zombie-mania. Just when you thought zombie films were stuck in a rut, Hollywood brought Seattle-based writer Isaac Marion's novel "Warm Bodies" to the screen, and movies about the undead will no longer will be the same. Simon and Schuster published the inventive book in 2010. 

"50/50" writer & director Jonathan Levine's adaptation of Marion's "Warm Bodies" is surprisingly captivating. A comparison between what occurs on screen and in Marion's book suggests Levine took minimal liberties with the source material.  This innovative makeover of a moribund genre takes matters beyond anything that either "Zombieland" or the "Resident Evil" franchise has tried in terms of permutation.  Basically, "Warm Bodies" takes zombie movies to the next level that gore-hound purists may not appreciate.  Levine doesn't pile up gratuitous amounts of blood and gore with shocking revelations to keep you stimulated.  Sure, zombies feed on the living, and they prefer the brain as an entrée. 

Nevertheless, Levine doesn't make a spectacle out of gut-munching for the sake of gut-munching. He obscures the feeding frenzy to accommodate a PG-13 rating.  First, the "Warm Bodies" zombies consume brains to experience the memories of those they've slain.  They just don't eat brains for no reason.  The idea you can derive knowledge from the consumption of an opponent's gray matter is fanciful.  Some cultures have argued eating the heart of an antagonist imparts strength to the victor.  Second, "Warm Bodies" has classified zombies as either good or bad.  Previously, all zombies were bad.  Creating a division between good and evil zombies endows the genre with greater sophistication.  In the "Warm Bodies" universe, bonies are the bad zombies.  Bonies are zombies who tear the skin off their bodies and resembled mummified skeletons. They move like lightning and they are treacherous.  They feast on the living as well as some of the dead. They are reminiscent of Ray Harryhausen's sword-wielding skeletons in the 1963 fantasy "Jason and the Argonauts."  Following Marion's lead, Levine has appropriated virtually everything else from the genre but cleverly has reconstituted the subject matter. 

Basically, Levine has synthesized the traditional zombie movie with a romantic comedy.  Like its literary source material, "Warm Bodies" makes allusions to Shakespeare's "Romeo and Juliet."  Indeed, there is even a brief balcony scene, though nothing like the Shakespeare version.  Our hero, a zombie known only as R (Nicholas Hoult of "X-Men: First Class") because he cannot remember his name, has spent most of the last eight years gnawing on humans.  When he doesn’t join his dead pals, like M (Rob Corddry), for group hunting trips, he enjoys his vinyl collection on a stereo in a derelict commercial jetliner.  You see, he holes up in an abandoned plane.  All the zombies congregate at the local airport.  Similarly, zombies in both George Romero's "Dawn of the Dead" (1978) and Zack Snyder's 2004 remake gravitated toward a shopping mall. After they became zombies, they were drawn by memories of the good times that they had had when they shopped together there.  Our lovesick zombie falls big-time for a young female zombie fighter, Julie (Teresa Palmer of "I Am Number Four"), after he chomps her boyfriend Perry’s brain.

Perry (David Franco), Julie, Nora (Analeigh Tipton), and others had left their heavily-fortified camp to scavenge the zombie infested outskirts of their fallen city for medical supplies.  When the zombies storm the medical supply room, R kills Perry, chews his brain, and feels smitten by Julie since he is seeing her from Perry’s perspective.  Incredibly, these sentiments of love reanimate his heart.  Now, R swears to protect Julie from the rest of his kind.  He escorts her back to his jetliner, and they grow to love each other.  According to this imaginative premise, biting into brains has the side effect of giving the undead a cerebral blast from the past.  If you shun run-of-the-mill zombie movies, "Warm Bodies" may change your attitude toward Z-pictures. This off-beat epic unites the living and the dead as allies in their collective war against the wicked bonies.  The happily ever after ending may curdle in the mouths of zombie purists. Nevertheless, "Warm Bodies" qualifies as the best thing that has happened to zombie movies since George A. Romero.

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