You don’t often hear the word “adorable” used to describe a zombie movie, but that is probably because you don’t often have a story about a zombie in love.
Oh, it’s still a zombie movie. Brains get eaten. In fact, that’s how our undead anti-hero, known only as R (Nicholas Hoult) falls in love. We meet him as a zombie who has a semblance of an inner life, already an arresting notion. The whole deal about zombies is that they are undead, soulless creatures who have just one remaining motive or compulsion — they need to eat, preferably brains. This gives them an important advantage over the rest of us, with our ambivalences, consciences, and that pesky ability to reason that requires us to consider a range of competing considerations. They also have an even more important advantage — being undead, they cannot really be killed.
R introduces himself via an internal narration that provides a comic contrast with his very limited mode of oral expression and compromised memory. R is all he can recall of his name. As he explains when he introduces his “best friend,” M (Rob Corddry), “by best friend I mean we occasionally grunt and stare awkwardly at each other.” He spends his days trudging stiffly through the airport, now the home base for the zombies, until he gets the urge to feed. A part of him longs to be human and a bigger part of him fears turning into one of the “bonies,” a further devolution from zombie, skeletal figures who are much more aggressive, eating their own skin. “They’ll eat anything with a heartbeat. I will, too, but at least I’m conflicted about it.”
There is one thing he likes about eating brains, “the part that makes me feel human again, a little less dead.” R eats the brains of a young man named Perry (Dave Franco of “21 Jump Street”), which give him access to Perry’s memories and to his feelings, especially his feelings of love for his girlfriend, Julie (the warmly appealing Teresa Palmer of “Take Me Home Tonight”). R and Julie — yes, there is a balcony scene, too. Julie lives in a walled, post-apocalyptic city ruled by her father (John Malkovich). The surviving humans are at war with the zombies. But R rescues Julie and as they are hiding out, his love for her begins to make him more human.
Hoult easily makes us understand why Julie is drawn to R, and his small, gradual awakening to the pleasures and pains of being human are beautifully chosen. Based on the book by Isaac Marion and with able script and direction from Jonathan Levine, this works as a zombie movie and as a romance. The massive losses have caused the humans to jettison some of their humanity for survival. Julie’s friend Nora (Analeigh Tipton of “Crazy, Stupid, Love”) to abandon her dream of being a nurse to be an armed forager. She has held on to a small store of make-up in hopes of a return to a more civilized life and tells Julie ruefully, “I wish the internet was working so I could look up what is wrong with you.” The movie’s nicest moments are when Julie must pretend to be a zombie and R must pretend to be a human. We see how superficial the differences have become and M and some of the other zombies find their hearts re-animated through the power of longing for love and Julie’s father has to open his heart despite his grief at losing his wife. R’s concerns about how he appears to Julie (“Don’t be creepy! Don’t be creepy!”) are only a slightly amplified version of what we all go through when we meet someone who inspires us to enlarge our spirits and be on our best behavior. And a simple “hi” turns out to be a poignant reminder of what being human really means.
Parents should know that this movie has fantasy/sci-fi violence, some graphic, with disturbing images, guns, brain-eating, knife, and weed-wacker attacks, some strong language (b-word, one f-word), a beer, and some lingerie.
Family discussion: What is the significance of the names R and Julie? What makes R more human?
If you like this, try: “Shaun of the Dead” and “Zombieland”