“I don’t want to be this way. I am lonely, I am lost.” - R
I hated Warm Bodies. Hated it with a passion. Then I actually read the book. This weekend I saw the film, and finally repented of my biased position.
See, for years I had an idea rattling around in the back of my head: wouldn’t it be cool to write a zombie story where characters “dead in their zombie trespasses” could have their heart revived and be restored to new life? In light of my Christian upbringing, the parallels were obvious, so I scribbled down some ideas here and there. All the while, author Isaac Marion was beating me to it. Now I’ll stop moaning and just say good job, Isaac!
The tone of the trailer worried me. I didn’t read the book with the quirky hipster tone they were going for, perhaps inspired by Zombieland’s opening “rules”, and I worried it would dilute Marion’s material. While tonally different, I think the movie is dead on when it’s focused on the humorous and romantic elements, but stumbles a bit in creating any real sense of suspense. Zom-coms like Shaun of the Dead did this far better (see our audio review), but Warm Bodies‘ premise explores ideas and a “different sides of the tracks” romance that doesn’t make this seem like a limp retread. In fact, it took the cinematic version to make me realize the obvious parallel with Romeo and Juliet (the characters are R and Julie, for pity’s sake) when he’s standing under the balcony.
“You have the reputation of being alive, but you are dead…” – Revelation 3:1
Our protagonist is someone who is literally walking death… life is simply going through the motions, and those he knows don’t really remember their identity, they all shamble through life with no real direction or design. They limply keep repeating things that are familiar. Even worse, they take life from anyone who truly is living, their very existence dragging people down into death, or else their own damnable state (if they don’t eat the brains). At some point they are wholly given over to their darkness, becoming the dessicated “bonies” that are vicious and indistinguishable from one other.
R feels different. He collects things, has vague memories of the way things used to be, or ought to be. Even before he eats Julie’s boyfriend and gains memories (and affection) from the grey matter, he’s changing somehow. It might be easy to see the story’s point as simply about change wrought by romantic love - zomboy meets girl – but Julie’s presence and her boyfriend’s cerebral snack-pack simply represent fuel for a smoldering fire. R already desired change, and the slow but inevitable alteration in R (and corpses around him) is inexplicable… not exhaustively defined by the story itself. R’s love for Julie is an obvious accelerant, but there’s something elusive about it: the viewer is expected to simply swallow, as Julie insists, that they’re changing.
“But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ…” - Ephesians 2:4-6
We find ourselves in this curious tale with three categories of characters: the living, the walking dead who might be capable of change, and the ones lost to their darkness who are beyond hope. Not surprisingly, the living have isolated themselves from everyone else and don’t even want to entertain the idea Julie brings: that some like R might be changing, and that the living might help them do so. They believe it’s better to isolate, better to not take chances, better to treat everyone else as the enemy and not dare risk inviting them into the family. As a kid who grew up around legalistic religious folks, this reflection hit close to home.
Those who are religious, even (or especially) Christians can figuratively (and literally) wall themselves up and isolate from the world. They’re not just thankful for new life, they’re greedy for it, protecting themselves from infection and damning everyone else. They refuse to entertain the idea that anyone might be in the process of revivification, even if that person – like R – does something seemingly helpful. We assume everyone who is not like us is a “bony” and hide ourselves away. We don’t want our sons or daughters interacting with them for fear they’ll become infected, and even when one shows signs of transformation we doubt, distrust, and foster a culture of fear. Us versus them. This is the kind of blind fear Julie’s father exhibits in the film:
“They are what they are, and that’s evil.”
This is where the story truly adds something fresh to the zombie mythos. In most walking dead survival horror, there’s no way a corpse can become human again. Risk of infection is extreme, irreversible. If you’re compromised, you become a shambling consumer or whatever metaphor suits the zombie story’s particular mood. There is no coming back, and these hopeless creatures are only to be feared. Warm Bodies, however, breathes hope into this otherwise hopeless genre.
Not that some of the fears aren’t warranted, of course. R has done things he needs forgiveness for… little things like, you know, killing and eating people. The film expects us, with a wink, to take the narrative leap and root for R even though he killed and ate his love interest’s beau. First he’s merely guilty, but then he begins struggling to turn completely from his old ways. Still, if Julie finds out… can she forgive such a thing? Could we?
“And you, who were dead in your trespasses and the uncircumcision of your flesh, God made alive together with him, having forgiven us all our trespasses” - Colossians 2:13
Held too closely to real dating parallels, the narrative falls apart. “Dad, I know he’s not a good boy, but my love can change him.” This is often the cry of the blind girl who likes the bad boy and excuses his offenses, even as he hurts others or hits her. A wary Christian might even accuse me of advocating “missionary dating” – date the non-Christian boy, maybe he’ll convert – but that’s not the point here. And perhaps most troubling is the notion that the undead are “curing themselves” as Julie suggests: do we really think time and natural processes will remedy the problem in our hearts? Warm Bodies is a comedy riffing on a lot of themes, playfully dallying with tropes and prejudices, as messy and imprecise as a zombie dinner party. However, scattered amongst the entrails of this narrative are poignant ideas about a transition from death to life, how love plays into that, and our own doubts in believing that might be reality.
“At some point you just give up I guess. You lose hope.” - R
Is there truly hope in our story? Is there a miraculous, forgiving love that transcends death and transforms it into life? That inexplicable curative is what the Christian finds in Jesus. Julie talks about the world needing to be “exhumed”, a curious term another character thinks she’s misused. However, when you think about the definition… to dig out of the hole it’s buried in, to liberate from the grave, to usher into the light… it has some pretty awesome implications.
Questions for discussion:
Do we feel like R? Empty, shambling, devoid of purpose and surrounded by people equally dull-eyed, longing for real life?
Do we really believe anything miraculous can change our state of being and give true life to our hearts?
Do we believe we will naturally “cure ourselves”?
Do we fear those who don’t have the new life we have and live in our own subculture of avoidance and disgust?
Do we share a story of hope for the “exhuming” of the world, of radical new life given to those who are walking dead?