Do zombies have memories? The question comes up from time to time in lore about the walking dead.
In George A. Romero’s 1978 “Dawn of the Dead,” zombies gather outside a shopping mall like Black Friday bargain hunters, driven by residual instinct from their days as living humans.
Something like that satirical notion is a big part of “Warm Bodies.” A smart and surprisingly sweet dramedy based on a highly original novel by Seattle author Isaac Marion, “Warm Bodies” finds zombies shuffling endlessly through the ruins of an airport, riding escalators and passing through security because the impulse to do so is still there — even if they can’t recall why.
But memory plays another part in Marion’s unusual love story and its sharp adaptation by screenwriter-director Jonathan Levine (2011’s wonderful “50/50”). In the “Warm Bodies”’ version of the zombie apocalypse, staggering corpses feast — as you’d expect — on the living. But human brains are prized for giving the dead their victims’ recollections and emotions.
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During a raid by zombies on a party of human scavengers, one young dead fellow, R (Nicholas Hoult), samples the memories of a fallen warrior and feels the latter’s love for Julie (Teresa Palmer). A smitten R saves Julie from being eaten and leads her back to the 747 he calls home, where he can protect her while figuring out why and how she is stirring him back to life.
Hoult and Palmer carry “Warm Bodies” with a delightful conviction their characters’ forbidden, “Romeo and Juliet”-like bond can be played like other movie romances, albeit with an obvious twist.
Their future and R’s gradual reconnection with humanity unsettles both the dead (inspired by R’s changes) and living (forced to reconsider the enemy). The result of this lost status quo is fun and thoughtful, with John Malkovich and Rob Corddry taking on the film’s scariest creatures: skeletal “Bonies,” i.e., advanced, unfeeling monsters.
At the heart of “Warm Bodies” is a serious theme: What really constitutes being truly alive or truly dead? There’s plenty of desire and resignation in human and zombie camps alike in this movie, suggesting life is a relative experience.
Tom Keogh: firstname.lastname@example.org