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'Warm Bodies' warms hearts with sweet, death-defying love story

11:26 AM, Feb. 1, 2013
Nicholas Hoult in a scene from 'Warm Bodies.'
Nicholas Hoult in a scene from 'Warm Bodies.' / Jonathan Wenk/Summit Entertainment

‘Warm Bodies’

Rated: PG-13 for zombie violence and some language.
Star rating:★★★

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Boy meets girl. Boy eats girl’s boyfriend’s brain. Boy woos girl with radical vinyl collection. And these crazy kids just might have a chance if the girl can stop her dad from shooting her new zombie love in the head.

Yes, zombie.

Hollywood has indulged in its fair share of supernatural hook-ups in the past few years, so much so that human-vampire and vampire-werewolf pairings are starting to become rote (thanks, “Twilight”). But a pretty young girl falling head over heels for an undead husk of rotting flesh? How does that work, exactly?

First, it helps if your zombie is played by Nicholas Hoult, who couldn’t help being dreamy despite all the white face cream and ice-blue contact lenses in the world. A relatively fresh-looking zombie who can only remember that his living name began with the letter “R,” he hangs with his cohorts in the shell of an abandoned airport (sorry guys, we still have to deal with the TSA in our post-apocalyptic hellscape), where they shuffle and grunt away from the public eye until it’s time to feed.

During one of these lunch runs into the city, R stumbles across a pack of scavenging human survivors, including Julie (Teresa Palmer) and her boyfriend (Dave Franco), whom R proceeds to eat.

In this zombie universe, eating a brain passes on the memories of the victim to the muncher. R is instantly assaulted with stolen memories of Julie and the idylls of young love, experiencing in a flash all of the dead boyfriend’s passion for his beautiful, feisty girlfriend.

And just like that, R is smitten. He coerces a terrified Julie to follow him back to the dilapidated airplane he calls home where, with the aid of some sweet-sounding vinyl and the occasional burst of halting monosyllabic speech, he tries, against all odds, to win her over.

Based on the young-adult novel by Isaac Marion, the lighthearted zombie-human romance might seem a strange next step for director Jonathan Levine, the talented filmmaker behind 2011’s affecting, low-budget “50/50.” But it’s not simply cashing in on a craze -- be it zombies, young-adult-novel adaptations or supernatural romances. There isn’t a cynical bone in this film’s achingly sincere body.

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And it’s not really a horror movie, unless the “horror” in question is the all-consuming awkwardness of young love. The voiceover commentary running through R’s head could pass for any teenager falling hard for a pretty girl. “Don’t be creepy, don’t be creepy, don’t be creepy,” R chants to himself as his unwavering ghoulish gaze borders on obsessive leering -- good advice, both for the undead and hormonally charged living.

It’s also easy to relate on a personal level to Julie’s gun-toting father (a delightfully cast John Malkovich) when he doesn’t take kindly to the budding romance. What overprotective father hasn’t entertained thoughts of threatening his young daughter’s sketchy new boyfriend, zombie or otherwise?

As zombie movies go, “Warm Bodies” doesn’t rank near the top of the pack. It falls short of the piercing social commentary and gore of George Romero’s best films, and lacks the wit and mania of lighthearted icons like “Shaun of the Dead” and “Zombieland.”

But as a young-adult romance, it’s ace. And that’s what the film means to be, anyway -- not a cold, shambling corpse but an exposed heart, warm and pulsing with life.

No, it’s not the best zombie film, but it may well be the cutest.

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