An unlikely romance between a beautiful human teen and a sensitive undead slacker sets off a chain of events with the power to transform the world in Warm Bodies, the hilarious and heartwarming zombie action rom‐com based on the popular novel by Isaac Marion. It’s a familiar scenario—a mysterious virus has devastated civilization, turning its victims into flesh‐eating monsters without memories of their past lives. What is left of humanity is holed up in heavily fortified bunkers where they live in fear of their former loved ones. But all that changes when a ravenous zombie hunting party crosses paths with a human reconnaissance crew scavenging supplies. R (Nicholas Hoult), a soulful zombie, is so captivated by the lovely and living Julie (Teresa Palmer) that, instead of eating her brains, he saves her from being consumed by his companions.
Taking her back to the zombie‐ridden airport he calls home, R hides Julie in an abandoned 747 filled with treasures he has collected during his hunting expeditions—vinyl records, snow globes, musical instruments and other lost relics of a saner time. Over the next
few days in their surprisingly cozy hideaway, the feisty Julie awakens long‐forgotten feelings in R, while she begins to realize there is more to him than a vacant stare and a slow‐motion shuffle.
Confused by her feelings, Julie returns to her walled‐off city where her father (John Malkovich), a ruthless zombie hunter, leads a well‐armed security force. Meanwhile, the lovelorn R has begun to change in ways he never thought possible and believes his connection
with Julie could be the salvation of the human race. But when he shows up at her doorstep, it sparks an all‐out war between the living and the undead that threatens to derail the couple’s chance of a future together. A fresh twist on a classic love story, Warm Bodies offers a surprisingly romantic look at the lighter side of the zombie apocalypse—and reminds us what it
means to be human.
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“As a piece of writing, it was so elegant and beautiful,” says Papandrea, who at a friend’s recommendation got hold of the book before it was published and read it from cover to cover during a flight. “It had such an incredibly strong voice and character. Although it was a genre piece, it was an incredibly emotional, character‐driven story.” Papandrea, who had just started her own production company, Make Movies, immediately set about securing the film rights, and three days later she was in Marion’s hometown of Seattle to meet with the writer. Soon afterwards she sent the manuscript to some of her closest studio contacts, including Erik Feig, a production executive at Summit Entertainment.
“It was a little astounding how fast they responded,” Papandrea recalls. “Within weeks, they told me they wanted to make the movie and were optioning the book.” In part Papandrea and others were drawn to the novel’s portrayal of a post‐apocalyptic world from the viewpoint of the zombies themselves. “I’d never heard anyone treat these creatures as individuals, something that would have a perspective,” Marion says. “They’re always used as props in the background that come rushing at the human characters. They’re anonymous and mindless.”
Instead of the typical black‐and‐white, all‐or‐nothing, human‐or‐zombie portrayal of the conflict between living and undead, Marion chose to explore the gray areas in between—how a person transitions into becoming a zombie and then back to being human. “That concept really fascinated me,” he says.
In a strange way, Marion says his novel was not only personal, but even a little autobiographical. “As I developed this story, I started to notice parallels with what was going on in my life at the time,” he explains. “I was coming out of this period of being very emotionally detached, cynical and living in a lifeless state. It became a fairly thinly veiled metaphor for that process that I went through.”With Summit on board, Papandrea next took the project to writer‐director Jonathan Levine (50/50, The Wackness), whose initial resistance to doing a movie based on a young‐adult novel waned when he saw how wildly creative the book was.
“I identified with the main character, and the book Isaac wrote really allowed for these incredible directorial flourishes and aggressive style,” Levine says. “I was excited about the opportunity to push the envelope visually, and it was a great character piece, as well. It’s an adventure. It’s a romance. It’s got comedic elements. It’s got horror elements.” Collaborating closely with Marion, Levine went on to write the screenplay for the film. He says he saw the love relationship between R and Julie at the heart of the story as a “mash‐ up” of “Romeo and Juliet” and “Frankenstein.”
“The arc of their relationship was the most important thing to me to get right directorially—the push and pull of guys and girls, the way relationships start and people are nervous at first, maybe even repulsed, and then come together,” he says. For producer Todd Lieberman (The Fighter, The Proposal), Levine was a great pick for director. “It’s a zombie genre film, there’s a love story, but it also happens to capture a unique, self‐aware, self‐referential, humorous tone,” he says. “Jonathan is tailor‐made to do something
As for the film’s larger themes, the filmmakers say it follows in the tradition of zombie movies that make a social commentary, including George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead, but with some key twists that make it especially original. “The salient theme at the heart of it is that people have forgotten what it means to be human and, through the interaction of these two characters, other people re‐learn what it means to be human,” Levine says. “Not just the zombies, but the humans, too.”
Despite the existence of the so‐called “Boneys”—a more advanced breed of zombie that is beyond the point of no return—WARM BODIES also features less gore and physical disintegration than many other films in its genre. “I don’t even look at it, really, as a zombie movie,” Levine says. “I look at it as a monster movie that turns into a love story. We’re working within the zombie mythology, but we’re using that mythology as a means to an end, as shorthand for something else.”
Part of that shorthand is the startlingly original conceit—and recurring structural device—of having the zombies relive the memories of their human victims by eating their brains. To wit: R falls in love with Julie by reliving her boyfriend Perry’s memories through ingesting his brains.
“It’s such an amazingly unique way to fall in love with someone,” Papandrea says. In casting the movie, the filmmakers pulled together a blend of seasoned actors and relative newcomers. For the role of the film’s undead romantic lead R, they cast British actor
Nicholas Hoult (About a Boy, A Single Man), after seeing his work on the envelope‐pushing British TV drama “Skins.” “He was sensational; the performance was just so strong,” says Papandrea of Hoult’s work in “Skins.” “He had an intensity to his face and gesture that was remarkable.” For his part, Hoult says he was drawn to the challenge the role presented. “The idea of this zombie who I have to try to make an audience care about and root for, that was interesting to me,” he says. “In the script, he was very funny and eloquent in his
voiceover, so there was a charm about him and a humor as well.”
Hoult, who found Marion’s book “a fantastic read” and Levine’s adaptation “a real page‐turner,” describes the character of R as a zombie who feels trapped and lonely, stumbling around the abandoned airport that is his home and wanting more from life. “The most compelling thing about R is his need to connect,” Hoult says. “He wants to connect with the other zombies in the airport, even though they’ve got nothing to really say to him and can’t even say their names. He wants to connect with Julie and to feel alive. That’s one of the most human instincts ever—to want to feel a part of something and to connect with another human.”
One of the challenges of the role was the fact that, at least initially, R cannot speak in words—a condition that gradually changes as the story progresses. “A lot of the time I had to communicate just through movement, my eyes, the things I do, or the records R plays for Julie,” Hoult says. “The idea of not being able to say what you’re thinking was something that was exciting for me. It makes you think in a slightly different way than you normally would.”
For the role of R’s human love interest, Julie Grigio, the filmmakers chose Australian‐born Teresa Palmer (I Am Number Four) from a shortlist of five actresses who made it through to read with Hoult. “There’s something about Australian actresses, a confidence and strength,” says Papandrea, who is an Aussie herself. “It’s a very hands‐on approach over there, a little different from America. It’s difficult to find a girl who is young, very beautiful and has vulnerability, but also is such a fireball.”
Those qualities perfectly equipped Palmer to play the role of Julie. “She’s a warrior,” Palmer says of her character. “She’s strong and has an amazing energy. She’s bubbly; she’s got a big spirit and a good heart. Things have really been dimmed for her since her mother was killed by one of the zombies. She’s unhappy. Then she meets R. He breathes life back into her. They fall for each other and she’s reminded of what life can be like and starts to hope again, which is a really beautiful thing. ”
But it wasn’t love at first sight for Julie and R, who meet under the most violent of circumstances. When R saves Julie from the other zombies and takes her back to his lair in an old airplane at the abandoned airport, Julie figures he’s just storing her as a snack for later. But she begins to soften when R starts to look after her by bringing her blankets and food. And so the seeds of their unlikely romance are sown.
Although Marion insists the film is not “Romeo and Juliet” with zombies, hhe admits that the Shakespeare classic informs some of the film’s subtext. There’s even a balcony scene and—in what is surely a first in the genre—a romantic kiss between the zombie R and his human object of desire, Julie.
Levine admits the balcony scene is a nod to “Romeo and Juliet” and says it was fun to shoot—even though he had doubts about it: “It was a scene I wasn’t always sure about, to be honest, because it kind of comes at this point in the script when we’re transitioning from the
first to the second half of the movie, which is a little broader. It was always a tonal shift that concerned me. But I watch it now and I’m really happy with it.”
For the role of General Grigio, Julie’s cold, dogmatic father and the leader of the human survivors, the filmmakers were thrilled to land landed John Malkovich (Dangerous Liaisons, Being John Malkovich). “It’s a smaller role in the context of the other roles in the movie but it’s incredibly important,” says Papandrea. “We really needed someone who immediately came on the scene and had gravitas. I honestly could not imagine else who could play that role.”
For his part, Malkovich says he was attracted by the film’s storytelling. “I especially liked the two main characters and the way the story unfolds. In the writing of the screenplay based on the novel, there’s still quite a novelistic approach that I liked.” Although the actor shared something of a father‐daughter dynamic with Palmer off‐camera, Malkovich says the General and Julie are in intense opposition on screen. “He ups the pressure on Julie and what she’s feeling and thinking, because her father is in charge of exterminating the group which her love object happens to belong to.”
But even General Grigio evolves eventually. “That’s really in the very last frames of the film,” Levine explains. “It’s a sudden conversion, based on something he sees that he’s never seen before.”