LOS ANGELES — “Warm Bodies,” the latest permutation of the zombie screen phenomenon, places heart over horror and romantic teen angst over sharp social commentary. The low gore quotient and emphasis on young love might disappoint genre purists, but for those open to the idea of a gently goofy mash-up, the film is strong on atmosphere and offers likably low-key, if somewhat bland, charms. As a date movie for teens and twentysomethings that nods toward edgy fantasy while favoring down-to-earth mellowness, the Summit release is primed to hit the box-office sweet spot.
Working from Isaac Marion’s young-adult novel, writer-director Jonathan Levine has devised a feature that’s his highest-concept production to date, yet still somehow his least contrived. His affinity for low-key male coming-of-age stories, demonstrated in “The Wackness” and “50/50,” lends itself to the saga of an undead sensitive guy who falls for a real-live girl.
The story’s dystopian versions of Romeo and Juliet are Nicholas Hoult’s R — he can’t remember his full name, or anything else about his pre-apocalypse existence — and Teresa Palmer’s Julie, whose meet-cute involves a shoot-’em-up that ends badly for Julie’s duty-bound boyfriend (Dave Franco). As R’s voice-over narration explains, it’s been eight years since an unspecified plague devastated humankind. Corpses, as the slacker-ish zombies are called and of which he’s one, feed on what’s left of the living. A more extreme mutation called Boneys — skeletal creatures that are an effective but not quite menacing combination of stunt work and CGI — will eat anything, including corpses.
The gore is suggested rather than explicit, mostly via the blood-smeared lips of R, who’s given to snacking on brains. It’s a form of nourishment that gives him access to the dead’s memories, presented in scenes that fill in backstory but don’t entirely make sense in terms of point of view.
Julie helps to defend the humans’ walled-off Green Zone as a member of the militia organized by her widowed father (John Malkovich, a compellingly single-minded authority figure). She winds up on the other side of the wall after a smitten R saves her from his fellow corpses and spirits her back to his home base, an abandoned airport that’s key among the movie’s superb Montreal locations.
In the jet that R has turned into a collector’s paradise of retro tchotchkes, including vintage vinyl and a working turntable, the two stare at each other and try to converse, with R’s vocabulary of grunts gradually giving way to the language he’d almost forgotten. Before long they’re grooving to album cuts like Springsteen’s “Hungry Heart” and Dylan’s “Shelter From the Storm” — songs that are no less enjoyable here for being transparently on-the-nose. There’s an exuberant sweetness to the material’s nostalgic slant that goes beyond thrift-shop memorabilia, binding millennial yearning to boomer pop-culture soulfulness.
The portrait of adolescent alienation touches glancingly on degrees of conformity, but Levine has no interest in crossing into the political-allegory territory of George Romero’s zombie classics. Here the ennui sometimes seeps into the narrative in a way that leaves stretches of the movie enervated and galumphing like a corpse.
As far as the latter goes, Hoult’s shuffling zombie perambulation is particularly good, as is his facial expressiveness in scenes where R is essentially preverbal. The British actor, who made his name as a kid in “About a Boy” and soon will topline Bryan Singer’s “Jack the Giant Slayer,” is charismatic as a guy whose first love proves truly transformative. He and Aussie Palmer handle their dialogue with believable American accents, zombie inflection included. Her Julie is a good match for R, at once warrior-tough and openhearted. As their respective best friends, Rob Corddry and Analeigh Tipton are well cast, the former providing a suitably inscrutable take on Mercutio and Tipton upping the film’s comic buoyancy.
Cinematographer Javier Aguirresarobe (whose credits include “Vicky Cristina Barcelona,” ”The Others” and two “Twilight” features) uses widescreen, long shots and a blue-gray palette to heighten the wasteland feel. From newspaper headlines to street art by Shepard Fairey, Martin Whist’s production design is a frozen-in-time cityscape waiting to be thawed.
But when the central characters’ love jump-starts that thawing, the movie grows less evocative and more heavy-handed, pounding home its theme of engagement over passivity to the brink of Hollywood malarkey. Flavorful song choices aside, the music score likewise veers toward the sentimental. At its best, “Warm Bodies” paints a dead zone’s slow awakening with gloomy giddiness, brimming with visual humor.
“Warm Bodies,” a Summit release, is rated PG-13 for zombie violence and some language. 97 minutes.