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You need to watch the brainiest zombie movie on HBO Max ASAP

Introducing the elusive rom-zom-com.

When George Romero recontextualized zombies with 1968’s Night of the Living Dead, he wasn’t particularly concerned with the concept of the undead.

First figures of Haitian folklore, the undead were imbued by Romero with a spirit of cruel anarchy. Zombies came to stand for a world that felt nothing and caused only pain. Slow or fast, they shuffled through malls, tore up towns, and existed to force humans into situations where those left alive could be just as monstrous as their undead enemies.

But what if zombies cared? What if they cared a whole lot? That’s the concept at the undead-but-beating heart of Warm Bodies, a sweet zombie romantic comedy directed by Jonathan Levine. Now that it’s streaming on HBO Max, here’s why you need to catch up with this hidden gem.

Nicholas Hoult in Warm Bodies.Lionsgate

Warm Bodies tells the story of R (Nicholas Hoult), who is a zombie. R, we learn through an internal monologue, is a little insecure. While he clearly has a sense of self, he can’t remember much of his past life, save the first letter of his old name. He has a zombie friend (Rob Corddry); the two hang out and grunt at each other for hours in the airport where they live.

R lacks direction, which makes sense for a zombie shuffling around an airport. Beyond the surrounding and mostly passive hordes, there are the truly evil boneys: skeletons who seem to enjoy the cruelty they inflict on others. All zombies eventually turn into boneys, a thought that fills R with dread.

But life isn’t all bad. Zombies shuffle around in packs, looking for people to eat. It’s not that R likes eating people, mind you, but the hunger he has is powerful. When human Perry (Dave Franco) appears leading a scavenger group that includes his girlfriend Julie (Teresa Palmer), R comes into contact with these travelers. Perry is trying to impress Julie’s dad, military leader Colonel Grigio (John Malkovich), and prove that he has what it takes to be a leader.

Teresa Palmer and Nicholas Hoult in Warm Bodies.Lionsgate

He doesn’t. Perry’s group is quickly overrun by R’s horde. But when R sees Julie, something is awakened within him. He isn’t sure what that is, So he decides to eat her boyfriend’s brains to find out.

Brains, in the world of Warm Bodies, allow R to experience glimpses of Perry’s memories. So we see him growing up, going to school, and telling Julie he loves her. That’s when R decides he has to protect Julie.

As Levine told Collider in 2013, “the whole movie’s preposterous” without Hoult. Only a few years removed from his breakout work in the British teen drama Skins, Hoult understood how to find humanity in R’s absurd situation. He’s very funny pretending to be human. Hoult plays R with heart — the resumed beating of which Levine makes part of the character’s journey.

All of this calls to mind an old Simpsons bit, where Professor Frink is furious at a machine for announcing the secret ingredient for a recipe is love. Love? That’s all it takes to cure zombies? And yet, zombies are ridiculous to begin with. Hoult and Palmer exhibit great chemistry, and the script doesn’t take things too seriously.

Nicholas Hoult in Warm Bodies.Lionsgate

If any aspect of Warm Bodies has aged visibly since its debut in 2013, it’s Hoult’s portrayal of a manic pixie zombie dream boy. He fits the early 2010s ideal of hipster heartthrob down to the letter. Skinny and tall? Check. Clad in a hoodie and tight-fitting jeans? Check. Has a great collection of vinyls? Somehow, check. When Julie checks out his bachelor pad in an abandoned airplane, she sifts through Joni Mitchell and Bruce Springsteen records.

Perhaps Warm Bodies isn’t after the greatest world-building the genre has ever seen, but it’s fun. As the two wait out the zombie hordes, R begins to change. And when he’s able to convince his friend that they shouldn’t eat Julie, that zombie begins to change too.

By the time Warm Bodies was released, Hollywood was primed for supernatural romance. The Twilight movies had just come to an end, with Breaking Dawn out a year earlier. And back in 2004, Shaun of the Dead had proved that a rom-zom-com could work. So in 2011, when writer Isaac Marion published a Romeo and Juliet-style novel about a zombie who falls in love with a living girl, Hollywood saw an opportunity.

In an introductory post for his Patreon, Marion notes that while the movie took a more romantic and comedic perspective on the story, “the books were actually kinda serious.” He wanted to use zombies as a “stealth vehicle” for discussing “depression, searching for a place to belong in the world, and holding on to hope when the world is falling apart,” among other ideas.

The movie touches on these concepts, to an extent. Hoult’s wonderful opening monologue captures the energy of Marion’s text. But a light touch goes a long way. The film is not as outrageously funny as Shaun of the Dead, but if you’re looking for a spooky-yet-relaxed vibe this Halloween, Warm Bodies is worth unearthing.

Warm Bodies is now streaming on HBO Max.

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