I don’t know if the first zombie date flick is a step forward or backward for civilization as a whole, but I can say that “Warm Bodies” pulls off a pretty impressive trick: It has its “Twilight” and goofs on it too.
Based on a novel by Isaac Marion, it’s a post-apocalyptic star-crossed romance, complete with neo-Shakespearean balcony scene. Over in this corner of a nameless metropolis (Montreal, doing a fair impression of Manhattan) are the remnants of human society, bossed over by survivalist Grigio (John Malkovich) and hoping to rebuild behind a massive steel wall. Out at the airport — and everywhere else, apparently — are legions of the undead, shuffling blindly through their endless days like commuters who’ve forgotten where they live.
“Warm Bodies” is narrated by an alienated young zombie (Nicholas Hoult) who calls himself “R,” either because that’s all he can remember or all he can say. That his soulful, sarcastic inner soundtrack doesn’t match up with R’s inarticulate groans is one of the many bits of illogic the movie begs us to overlook. Which we do, because the humor’s there and the insights, such as they are, are tart. (“Remember when we could communicate?” wonders the hero just before we get a quick flashback of pre-apocalypse humans staring into their iPhones.)
“Warm Bodies” is adolescent enough to envision a romance slowly springing up between the undead hero and Julie (Teresa Palmer), a living, breathing girl out with her friends on a recon mission, and subversive enough to have R fall in love while eating Julie’s boyfriend’s brains. (The ’80s pop chestnut “Missing You” plays on the soundtrack.) Writer-director Jonathan Levine (“50/50”) keeps the blood and guts within PG-13 boundaries, which has the double benefit of strengthening the story line and annoying hard-core gorehounds.
He also plays fast and loose with zombie lore. The undead in “Warm Bodies” can run when they have a mind to, and they even have a stunted sort of social life. R meets regularly with his best friend M (Rob Corddry) to grunt and moan, and when he rescues Julie from the other zombies and brings her back to his bachelor pad in a stranded jet, she can’t help but be impressed by his collection of vinyl records. “Better . . . sound,” R explains. “More . . . alive.”
Most heretical of all, the movie floats the idea that love conquers all, up to and including the physical process of zombification itself. As R spends more time with Julie, and as she warms to his cold-blooded ardor, a flush gradually returns to his cheek, his speech improves, he’s not such a stiff. Against all known crypto-medical evidence, “Warm Bodies” suggests that affection itself might be a virus, or at least a serious antibiotic.
Levine keeps the film on the right side of the silly/sweet divide, and he gets smart, committed performances out of his cast; only Malkovich, as the disapproving dad, lets on that he’s slumming. Hoult (“About a Boy”) carries himself with sardonic vulnerability — R really has seen it all, including the far side of death — and Palmer, who was the best thing in the dopey alien romance “I Am Number Four,” slyly undercuts the tough-girl-with-heart-of-mush cliché. R and Julie are too sharp to be anybody’s Edward and Bella.
And yet that balcony scene, after R staggers into the human compound in search of his lady love, works as both parody and true romance, and the following scene, in which Julie and her best friend Nora (a droll Analeigh Tipton) give the hero an un-undead makeover, is almost transgressively playful. “Warm Bodies” eventually has to fall back on action mayhem — the most skeletal zombies, unredeemable CGI boogeymen called Bonies, mount a double assault against the humans and their own traitorous kin — and its soundtrack choices (“Sitting Here in Limbo,” “Hungry Heart”) are a little obvious. But the movie ends where a good modern love story should, with clasped hands and a National song croaking moodily on the soundtrack. Best of all, everyone here clearly has a taste for brains.Ty Burr can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @tyburr.