Splice

Dead like me: Cute but conventional zombie love story makes for amusing undead entertainment

A zombie outbreak has spread throughout pop culture for years, stampeding through movies, television, books and video games. A few gullible folks even think huffing bath salts will turn them into ravenous brain-munchers.

Moviegoers are inundated with more zombie knowledge than anyone in his or her right mind should ever possess, so when a “zombie love story” comes along and tries to subvert the genre, it’s tough to really be original.

“Warm Bodies” is part-Shakespearian romance and part-angsty teen comedy, unfolding in a fairly generic post-apocalyptic zombie wasteland. Nicholas Hoult’s undead but good-hearted hero grants the film most of its charm, backed by Rob Corddry’s hilariously understated performance as his zombie best friend.

A pop-infused soundtrack helps set the morbidly cheerful mood, blending classic rock and indie songs to evoke that familiar new-age romantic vibe.

But despite its likable cast and some amusing “Romeo and Juliet” parallels, “Warm Bodies” doesn’t match the promise of its intriguingly offbeat, if somewhat yucky concept. Where the film could break new ground, it chooses imitation, and the lovey-dovey ending favors cuteness over clever storytelling.

Plus, even zombies have rules, and after a while, the logic and biology behind “Warm Bodies” grows a bit too shaky to overlook — even for fictional undead beings.

R (Hoult) is a zombie. He knows his name starts with R but can’t remember much else. He’s only capable of grunting, but R has an active inner monologue. He considers himself a nice zombie. While R eats humans to survive like everyone else, “at least he’s conflicted about it.”

Hoult is a bit too decent-looking for a zombie. The design team slapped on some pale makeup, dirt and a few scratches and called him zombie-fied. The mussed-up hair and wide blue eyes make R easy to root for, plus endearing traits like collecting old trinkets (reminiscent of “Wall-E”) and sensitive inner narration channeling J.D. from “Scrubs” or “Lizzie McGuire.”

But that’s not a knock on Hoult’s acting, whose charismatic performance makes the most of shrugs and grunts as an adorable dead guy with a warm and fuzzy soul.

One day, his horde is searching for food and comes across a band of humans, including Julie (Teresa Palmer). After devouring her boyfriend’s (Dave Franco) brains and experiencing his memories, a love-struck R saves terrified Julie and sneaks her to safety.

The unorthodox romance sputters through R’s fragmented speech and awkward glances, but they bond over listening to vinyl records and giving Julie undead acting lessons. Soon R and other zombies start feeling more human, wedging the “star-cross’d lovers” between human survivors, led by Julie’s icy father (a surprisingly one-dimensional John Malkovich), and menacing black skeletal zombies called “boneys” — basically a rip-off of the “I Am Legend” creatures.

The humans and boneys serve as the loose stand-ins for the Capulets and Montagues.

Hoult and Palmer’s chemistry gives the film a heart, even when the script leans on clichés, like teaching R how to drive and dabbing on makeup so he looks more alive. Their natural give and take is why the young love angle works, so when they re-enact the “Romeo and Juliet” balcony scene, it feels cute rather than cheesy.

The soundtrack helps, too, setting the mood with an eclectic mix of classic and contemporary, jumping from Bob Dylan and Guns N’ Roses to bands like Bon Iver, M83 and The National.

As R’s best friend M, Rob Corddry’s comic timing is eclipsed only by Bill Murray’s cameo in “Zombieland” in the history of zombie-related humor. He nails the blank-stared grunting deadpan, doling out sarcastic looks and raspy one-liners like “eat” and “b*tches, man.” Not to mention mowing down some fellow zombies with a golf cart.

The movie’s biggest problems are uneven logic and laziness. Early on, R complains, “God, we move slow.” Then later, we see zombies running at full speed. And apparently, zombies aren’t just brain-dead droolers, they can drive and form coherent thoughts.

Still, the hardest part to stomach is the sappy premise: a simple human connection cures all, explained by a cartoonish graphic of R’s heart beating when he grasps Julie’s hand. Sorry, don’t buy it.

But no one has ever called a zombie movie cute before, so at least “Warm Bodies” has that.

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