With his lanky frame, pale complexion and yearning eyes, the romantic hero of “Warm Bodies” resembles Robert Pattinson’s “Twilight” vampire, without the glitter. He’s a different breed of supernatural boy — the walking dead, flesh-eating sort. With his reduced brain function, he can’t even recall his name, except that it began with R.
So R (as in “Rrrrrr”) has the standard adolescent identity crisis, on top of romantic longings. When this undead Romeo meets perky survivalist Julie, one of the few human holdouts in a post-apocalyptic world, we have the makings of the most agreeable paranormal romance since Seth Grahame-Smith’s “Pride and Prejudice and Zombies” crawled up the New York Times bestseller list.
Granted, it’s not an easy sell to present a clammy, brain-gorging cadaver as a young adult dreamboat. It helps immensely that he’s played by Nicholas Hoult (of “X-Men: First Class”), who makes R’s shuffling body language, bug-eyed stares and inarticulate murmurs a sharp satire of disheveled youth. We’re encouraged to adopt his viewpoint as he guides us through his universe and into a double parody of horror films and love stories. Director Jonathan Levine, who successfully mixed cancer drama and comedy in “50/50,” knows how to make such unlikely cocktails go down smoothly.
R’s introspective voice-over narration lets us know he’s a goodhearted fellow, even if that organ stopped beating several years ago amid the zombie plague.
“What am I doing with my life?” he muses. “I’m so pale. I should get out more. I should eat better.”
On typical days, he shuffles around a derelict airport ( “I’m not sure why. People wait at airports, I guess”). The versatile comic character actor Rob Corddry plays R’s best friend M.
“By best friend, I mean we occasionally grunt and stare awkwardly at each other,” R explains. “Days pass this way.”
It’s a guy thing. In addition to putting us on R’s side with humor, the film creates a group of villains worse than the zombies. They’re the skeletal Boneys, who are uglier, faster and more ruthless than zombies, eating the living without the qualms that make R oddly sympathetic.
While foraging for living meat outside a cordoned-off city, R and his crew stumble upon young human scavengers gathering hospital supplies. In a gory twist on the traditional meet-cute — call it an eat-cute — R devours the brain of Julie’s boyfriend (Dave Franco) and experiences his memories of falling in love. Moved, R rescues Julie, houses her in the airliner he has converted into a bachelor pad, and plays her some old vinyl records.
Bit by bit, she lowers her guard and he becomes increasingly human: death warmed over. Soon he’s dreaming and on the shuffling path to recovery. There’s another big hurdle for the pair to clear, though. Julie’s hyper-protective father, Col. Grigio (John Malkovich), leads the local militia. He’s primed to splatter R’s brain clean out from under his floppy bangs.
While Malkovich approaches his silly role with Method solemnity, Hoult and Corddry get the good-natured goofiness of the piece. Teresa Palmer gives Julie an ingénue’s softness and a persuasive way with a machete. As her dubious, funny best friend, Analeigh Tipton gives Palmer a real tug-of-war for possession of their shared scenes. “Warm Bodies” is surely the zombie love story of the season.
★★ out of 4 stars
Rating: PG-13 for zombie violence and some action