My wife and I have been hitting the cinema almost every weekend and this week’s choice was a little on the complicated side. We had already seen The Perks of Being a Wallflower, Zero Dark 30, The Silver Linings Playbook, Django, and The Hobbit, so this week’s choice was up in the air. The reviews of Gangster Squad, the film set is Mickey Cohen’s Los Angeles, were so poor that we ruled it out from the start. Film critic for the Fort Worth Star Telegram, Cary Darling wrote that it “feels about as real as a mob-themed costume party,” and that her only consolation was counting the neo-noir cliches. Given that the other film that opened this weekend was Sylvester Stallone’s Bullet to the Head, this week’s pick was going to be a tough call. We checked Rotten Tomatoes and found that the reviews for the new-zombie flick, entitled Warm Bodies had fairly positive reviews, so off we went.
Normally, we wouldn’t see a monster movie, but Warm Bodies is different because it really doesn’t fit in any one single genre. One reviewer called it a “chick flick.” Most of the initial buzz on the Internet was about how to classify it. Is it part of the zombie genre or is it part of the vampire/werewolf/teenage-love genre? While the film has the brain-eating walking dead like those in the Resident Evil franchise, 28 Days Later, Shaun of the Dead, or Zombieland, it is also a tender love story. Because of this, one reviewer called “a genre mash-up,” a kind of like Frankenstein’s monster, pieces are stitched together from several bodies. This doesn’t mean that mixed-genre films will always go over with the audience. some negative reviews referred to it as “borderline satisfactory,” “two notches above poor, “clichéd yet cute,” “way beyond poor,” “amusing,” and a “treasure trove of mistakes.” Breaking the rules of genre might even leave some viewers feeling ripped off. Rolling Stone reviewer Peter Travers refers to the plot as a “con job.” From this perspective, the so-called real zombies cannot rekindle their dead hearts. This, of course, conveniently forgets that the monster genre, even in Bram Stoker’s original novel, is not just about death and destruction, but also deals with love, attraction, obsession and bonding. In any case, the overall reception to the movie has been positive and the film was a big winner at the box office on Super Bowl weekend.
Like a Tarantino film, Warm Bodies references everything from the post-apocalypse, walking-dead flicks, teenage vampires-in-love, and William Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet.” Perhaps the most concise description came from A. A. Dowd from Time Out Chicago, who wrote, “Good luck ascribing a clear satirical agenda to Jonathan Levine’s tonally uneven zomcom, which suffers an identity crisis nearly as severe as its protagonist’s.” Others tend to echo this bizarre mixture: “an oddball romantic farce, weird, sweet, cute, funny, a delightfully amusing insight into the human experience, charming, funny and a little gross.” My sense is that the zombie motif works much better if we take it as a metaphor for teenage awkwardness and heart break. As a former zombie myself, the protagonist’s interior monologue rang a number of bells. When he approaches his love interest, trying to think of something to say, he repeatedly tells himself, “don’t be creepy, don’t be creepy, say something human.”
The film opens with a scene of the walking dead in a large metropolitan airport. The protagonist is a teenager, who despite being a corpse still has the ability to think clearly, which provides great running commentary by the way. He has no idea what caused the apocalypse, or even what his name was. All he can remember is that his name probably started with the letter “R”. Like many teenagers, he longs for feelings, he thinks something is missing and he feels lost. To remain alive, the protagonist wanders throughout the city in search of humans. The zombie pack comes across a group of survivors in search of medical supplies and, in a blood-soaked orgy of feasting, the protagonist kills and eats brains of one its leaders, the boyfriend of love-interest Julie. In doing so, he inherits his thoughts and feelings and becomes instantly smitten. He rescues her from the others, brings her home with him and over time recovers his ability to speak. They bond and bit-by-bit, and he recovers the ability to sleep and dream.
At this point, the zombie meets girl, kidnaps girl, bonds with girl, loses girl and finds girl takes on a Romeo and Juliet quality, complete with a midnight balcony scene. The central conflict is that Julie’s father, played by John Malkovich, is bitterly opposed to his daughter dating a zombie and would like nothing better than to shoot all walking corpses full of lead. I know this feeling very well. Nonetheless, R bears tidings of a greater danger on the horizon. It turns out that zombies are only one phase of the undead, and that late-stage zombies, known as “bonies,” are much more dangerous than the zombies like R. The climax of the movie is the epic showdown where the zombies and humans team up to defeat the bonies, which coincides with R’s full recovery and his acceptance by Julie’s father.
Manohla Dargis from the New York Times describes the relationship that develops between R and Julie in terms of the oral stage in Freudian psychosexual development. She refers to it as “cannibalistic pregenital sexual organization” because sex at this level is no different from eating. All the zombie has to do is refrain from putting the bite on Julie. Not only is this Freudian pregenital stuff just as creepy as zombie-blood lust, but it really doesn’t work in “Warm Bodies” bodies because the zombies are of all ages and all of them had lives before the apocalypse: they just can’t remember. Trauma is what prevents them from verbalizing their feelings and their only access to feelings and memory is through eating another’s brains, a bizarre example of transference, if there ever was one.
There are a number of references that suggest that the zombie is a metaphor for heartbreak. The first occurs when R goes back to his airport home, seals himself off in his room, pulls out a vinyl record and listens to John Waite’s classic song, entitled “Missing You,” a song in which the singer affirms over and over that he doesn’t miss his ex girlfriend, and that he can lie to himself. The second song that speaks to heartbreak is Guns and Roses uncharacteristically soft ballad, entitled “Patience.” The allusions to heartbreak and loss, however, don’t stop there. When R returns to the airport after Julie has abandoned him, R’s best friend notices his anguish, identifies with him, shakes his head and mutters the word, “bitches,” as if lost love were a shared experience.
There is something very timely about zombie genre. I think it has less to do with monster genre and more to do with the prevalence of dysfunctionality and the prevalence of treating adolescence with medication. Early on in the film there was a reference that stuck with me that may be a key to understanding the particular zombie motif. While a group of humans is out of their protected compound in search of medication, they come across an abandoned pharmacy and one of the characters discovers a trove of Prozac and offers it to the others. For me, the images of the “walking dead,” teenage heartache and anti-depressants combined as a commentary on our own time: a world in which doctors and mental health care specialists prescribe pharmaceutical drugs to treat adolescence and broken hearts. Some statistics suggest that as many as 11% of adults and teens in the US are taking anti-depressants. If this is the case, the zombie apocalypse may be upon us already. If this statistic sounds unsettling, be sure to catch the thriller Side Effects, starring Jude Law and Catherine Zeta-Jones. It is for this reason that the protagonist R, near the end of the film, comments that “it is better to feel pain than nothing at all.” He was right. Things don’t get better if we don’t know what we are feeling.
Cross-posted at My Ongoing Struggle with Misanthropy