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What Are All Our Zombies Telling Us?

A review of 'Warm Bodies'

The undead, the living dead, the vampires, the zombies, the sleepless ones—call them what you like, there’s a lot of them about these days, and some of them are on the movie screen. Whether those creatures are more frightening than the zombies from life is hard to say. But now that we’re agreed the world is coming to an end, then zombie-ism—could “zombiana” be a word?—is becoming more fashionable. Zombie chic has been pale, vacant-eyed, and listless in the fashion magazines for years. (Lance Armstrong wasn’t just drugged, he was body-snatched.) So it’s agreeable to see a zombie movie fit for kids. Warm Bodies has no more than a PG-13 rating, and it has a comforting ending. Zombie purists will deride that, but can’t a zombie dream of feeling blood in his body again, and in the person he’s kissing?

The trend is more interesting than this particular film. But bear with it. Julie (Teresa Palmer) is a living person and the daughter of the commander in a post-apocalyptic world. He’s played by John Malkovich, easily the scariest thing in the picture, especially when he’s required to show paternal affection. The humans live in a walled compound, and beyond that are the hordes of shuffling zombies, looking for warm bodies to eat, and the bonies, gray, skeletal killing machines stolen from a Ray Harryhausen film. Well, Julie and some of her buddies go outside the wall and they get trouble. They are attacked by zombies and Julie’s boyfriend is killed by one lean, lank zombie (just a little Ashton Kutcherish). He then eats the boyfriend’s brain (a delicacy), which allows him to relive the dreams and memories stored in it. He’s advancing on Julie for dessert when something gets to him. He likes her! It turns out all he can remember of his name is R (Nicholas Hoult) and the picture works its way toward admitting that these two are R and Julie: Romero and Juliet?

So this is a love story, done with charm, humor, and tenderness. It doesn’t have the raw shock beauty of the George Romero films, or the black humor of Invasion of the Body Snatchers (either of the first two versions); it doesn’t have Sookie Stackhouse from “True Blood.” Still, there are virtues. Trapped by zombies, R tells Julie to behave as if dead and she promptly does a three-year-old’s version of zombiana. “Not too much,” he hisses at her. R knows the best zombies can be the most restrained: look at Dana Wynter or Brooke Adams in Invasion of the Body Snatchers, or several celebrities in real life whom I have been advised not to name.

Warm Bodies is written and directed by Jonathan Levine and taken from a novel by Isaac Marion. Levine is the director of 50/50 and of a strange but intriguing film of a few years ago called The Wackness. None of these films has been flawless, but Levine is an imagination struggling to get out. The same might be said of young, hopeful zombies, of course, and the most incorrect thing about this picture is its most touching—the chance that zombies may be alive again. Or is it born again? The metaphor doesn’t bear close scrutiny; it’s as great a compromise to say that zombies might find happiness. Real zombies believe in hell.

Warner Brothers Pictures
Teresa Palmer as Julie and Nicholas Hoult as R

But the zombie trend is compelling, and we are talking about a genre of entertainment that seems to appeal to kids as much as rock and roll once did. The five Twilight films have grossed over $1.3 billion at the American box office in the last five years. These are vampire romance movies, and they are versions of Romeo and Juliet where the lovers do not just anticipate that they are going to die: in a way they’re dead already. Those films come from the Stephenie Meyer novels, which are what your teenagers have been reading instead of Jane Austen or Emily Dickinson (though she, too, was pale, strange, and a little morbid).

The Twilight films were not well-made, but they went to the bank on Kristen Stewart as Bella Swan and Robert Pattinson as Edward Cullen. Stewart, coming up on twenty-three, is one of the richest women in show business. The debate over her as an actress or even a box-office attraction is not the point (indeed, her very sexy presence does not save On the Road). She has a pallid, restless discontent that seems right for a horny vampire; she sounds half asleep when she talks; and she is an icon, which is the secret to zombiana. Zombies may want their warm bodies back, but they also long to be chilled monuments of living death.

This is where Stewart blends with those wasted women in Vogue and the recurrent taste in rock music for affectless kids in black, seemingly possessed by great hunger and no appetite (a condition also familiar in the fashion world). If you want to get a sense of this cultural moment, don’t bother with The MasterLincoln, or Zero Dark Thirty. Those are films for parents. Go see Stewart and Pattinson in The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn—Part Two.

True Blood” is in a different category—not pulp but pulp poetry, and that’s largely because Alan Ball created it and wrote many episodes (he also did “Six Feet Under” and the movie American Beauty) and because Anna Paquin made Sookie one of the most interesting American women of this century. This came from a series of novels by Charlaine Harris and it had two great assets: it was a return to the Gothic South, a mythology that went cold after civil rights; and in its exploration of true blood and tru, the manufactured synthetic, it raised so many questions about the ambitions of medical science and this delicate moment.

Or as someone said to me the other night: “Are we being kept alive longer so we can see the end of the world?” To put it another way, there are sane, well-educated, unexcitable young people who are not counting on living a full term. And there are things in our culture that reflect that doubt. When I talk about Sookie being so emblematic in this century, that’s not simply rhetoric; it comes from a clear-eyed, gambling attitude about how long the century will last. (And it’s generous to speak of our response to global warming as gambling.)

Every parent tells every kid (and the line above came from my eighteen-year-old son) that you have to trust to hope and human ingenuity and political will. But it’s increasingly hard for parents to believe in such things after the last Congress, and after reading the most recent reports on global warming (as recently reviewed by Coral Davenport in Bookforum).

The real subject here is death, the gradual legitimization of murder, and the chronic dysfunction that believes we might live for ever if we can pay the medical bills, and the growing realization that a good many of the 90 percent have been written off, in their minds and in society’s. Years ago George Romero, an extraordinary independent film-maker out of Pittsburgh, started a series of very cheap (and very successful) films with Night of the Living Dead, which was made in 1968 and cost $114,000. For me, the great work in that series was the second film, Dawn of the Dead, in which our good guys take refuge in an abandoned shopping mall. That was made in 1978, when malls were still children in the landscape of shopping, but has any other American movie so captured the forlorn toxicity of such places and the way they speak to what is still, just, called our economy? Dawn of the Dead cost about $650,000 and earned about $55 million.

Our scrambled, clumsy, rushed debate over guns sometimes lashes out at violent movies and video games. There is justice in that, and some people were warning about it nearly fifty years ago. But the throb of commerce has drowned out the worry and films have become increasingly violent, and increasingly the sport of teenagers. We may deplore it, but we should try to understand it. Meanwhile we have just about one firearm for every human being in the country. But when did you last see a militia, which does seem to some of us to have been the original prompting for the Second Amendment? 

All of this is some way from Warm Bodies, a modest and unpretentious film in which zombies eating people are kept on a severe PG-13 diet. It’s just a silly movie, but the audience for it has long believed that movies are silly. Our kids do not have much faith in the plots, and less in their resolution. Teenagers may complain about Warm Bodies because it ends up soft. But it does offer what all these pictures and TV shows have: the modern urban terrain as a wasteland where there might easily be a rough wall put up between the ninety-seven and the three. If the ninety-seven had more faith in belief, there would be murder on the streets. But that may come; go look at Romero’s films, or at others that resemble them by Andrei Tarkovsky.