The zombie is a beautiful symphony of nuanced terrors. Not only does it prey on our most basic fears of pain and death, but it can touch cleverly on the social issues of the day. That’s what has always enabled the shuffling swarm to reach from the realm of the fantastic, into our reality in a way most ghouls never could. Imagine my disappointment then, when checking the UK cinema release schedule for October, I discovered a conspicuous lack of shambling, rotting corpses (aside from the umpteenth resurrection of Romeo and Juliet). So where can those in search of new undead cinema turn?
There have been two big-screen outings already for the walking deceased in 2013 now available on DVD. One of course was the colossal let-down of World War Z. For a film produced by Hollywood liberal Brad Pitt, the film failed to do justice to the proud tradition of social commentary the genre boasts. Having paid a visit to Israel, WWZ managed to despicably gloss over the UN-condemned “apartheid” occurring there, painting walls built to cleanse Palestinians from the land as ‘protection’ from the horde. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the purists cannot turn to megabucks Hollywood for sustenance then.
However, there is another alternative. Produced for over $100million less, Warm Bodies is a film which until recently I somewhat snobbishly avoided. In defence, the trailer and release date seemed geared toward putting me off. It appeared to be a gimmicky, insufferably saccharine rom-com; something especially intolerable when you are single. However, let me be first to admit I was mistaken.
Adapting Isaac Marion’s novel of the same name, writer/director Jonathon Levine crafts a clever, almost feminist, satire of one of Hollywood’s most embarrassingly prevalent tropes. The manic pixie dream girl – a trope which in the modern world should be considered as out of date as the rotting flesh on a walking corpse – reduces the role of female characters to that of a prop. They are fictions, bereft of their own aspiration and agency. They are inventions geared purely toward teaching deep, soulful young men to re-evaluate and embrace life.
I Give It A Year, Safe Haven, Beautiful Creatures all debuted alongside Warm Bodies, whilst Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo & Juliet and Moulin Rouge were re-released over Valentines week – and each film centres uncritically on this dynamic in some way. In the other films screening at the very same time all over the country then, this trope was taken to be “natural”. That’s just what girls are for – to serve men.Here however, the trope is taken to a beautifully absurd extreme; it is shown to be as ‘natural’ as the dead reanimating. Warm Bodies deconstructs the “saving the man” narrative through parody – as Julie (Teresa Palmer) literally brings the enigmatic “R” (Nicholas Hoult) back from the dead. It’s not that he cannot feel; his “zombie fingers” are riddled with rigor mortis. It’s not just that he cannot love; his heart has actually ceased to beat!
Without spoiling things, events still play out in a romantic manner – but when they do, they are accompanied by knowing nods to romantic clichés, as if to point out their absurdity. One particular balcony scene stands out, more Romero and Juliet than po-faced Shakespearean worship. And perhaps more importantly away from the central romance, Warm Bodies shows us love is not the be all and end all for women. There is no awkward, Richard Curtis-style romance shoe-horned in for Julie’s friend, Nora (Analeigh Tipton). Women here can define themselves without men; their happiness is not dependent on simply shacking up or settling down, but rather derived from any existence they get personal fulfilment from.
As it turns out then, the release date that initially put me off this film was important. Had it been released for Halloween, without hundreds of bland, sugary love-stories to contrast with, it would seem merely to be a zombie film with kissing. Released in February however, it became clear Warm Bodies had used “corpses” to satirise the swarm of gutless romances surrounding it, and to deconstruct the backward and reductive patriarchal norms most of us assume to be common sense. For that reason, I would heartily recommend those with a taste for brains and social commentary to seek it out on DVD for an evening’s viewing this October 31st.