Ever since George Romero created the 'rules' for zombie movies back in 1968 with "The Night of the Living Dead", we have been inundated with hundreds of feature films in this genre, occasionally cheeky or diverting, but largely with diminishing returns. Even Romero's own continued riffs on his pet subject have become less and less entertaining. It was therefore a breath of fresh air to chance upon this first successful zombie rom-com (yes, there have been other flawed attempts) which upturns the usual horror conventions. Director Jonathan Levine has blessed us with a zombie film that has an upbeat happy ending and a warm feel-good vibe.
He has adapted Isaac Marion's young adult novel to show us a future world where most of the population have been infected and the minority survivors are entrenched in a doomed fight for their continued existence. Nicholas Hoult plays R (a 'corpse' who can't quite recall what it stood for or how he ended up in his current sorry state); he also acts as the film's narrator -- fluently setting the scene with his deepest thoughts and fears, while in his daily existence he can barely string two words together. He and hundreds like him wander aimlessly through a deserted airport, only emerging in the quest for living food. It is during one of these raids with his best zombie buddy (a wonderful turn from Rob Corddry), that he meets Julie played by the Australian actress Teresa Palmer. She and her boyfriend (Dave Franco, a far less self-reverent actor than his brother James) have gone in search of medical supplies when their party is attacked and decimated.
R is the one who noshes on Franco and debates whether to let him return as a 'corpse' like him (the term 'zombie' is sparingly used in this flick) or whether to destroy him completely by munching on his brain. No contest, thinks R, since the brain is the best part! In eating a living brain he can absorb his victim's memories, the closest he can get to dreaming. Therefore he becomes able to visualise Franco's love for Julie and their shared past; infatuated with the possibilities, R spirits her away back to his airport bolthole. As he does his best to protect her from the surrounding hungry hordes and the so-called 'Boneys' -- skeletal nightmares that are so far gone that they have passed beyond death and will feast on anything that moves -- the pair begin to bond and to become closer. She is no longer frightened of her strange dead companion and somehow he seems to be getting warmer. However, she eventually convinces him to let her return to the fortified city and to its leader, her martinet Dad, John Malkovich.
R begins to sense something has changed not just for him but for his zombie mates as well -- their hearts seem to have begun beating and they are beginning to remember their own pasts. As Corddry's M tells R about his own 'dream' "I saw memories - my Mom, summertime, and cream....of wheat". R now not only yearns to be with Julie but to let her people know that things may to be getting better. He sneaks into the city and finds her, knowing that at any moment Malkovich might happily put a bullet through his brain if they are unable to convince him that R and the other 'corpses' may be able to co-exist with the besieged survivors. When Julie twigs that R is morphing, she exclaims "You're alive!", sounding just like Dr Frankenstein when he first animates his Creature. In a scene which demonstrates Levine's apt choice of popular music on the soundtrack, Julie and her best friend apply make-up on R's colourless skin, scars, and dark-circled eyes in an attempt to help him pass muster, all to the strains of "Pretty Woman".
Hoult, who has been acting on television since he was a seven-year old and who came to prominence in his first feature movie "About a Boy" (2002) is just brilliant in this role and the chemistry he creates with the comely Palmer is tangible. One can help but root for the mismatched pair. Comparisons have been drawn with the dreary and never-ending 'Twilight' series of films, but this movie is far more involving and heart-warming than that soppy saga. Some folk claim that zombie-ism is a metaphor for society as a whole, with the majority seeking instant gratification and wandering about apparently brain-dead the rest of the time. I think we can file that interpretation as a case of bonkers pretension and just enjoy a movie like this one for its sweet nature and ultimately cheerful outlook.