Before we even get to the crazy plot of Jonathan Levine's surprisingly sweet zombie romance fantasy "Warm Bodies," it should be noted that Nicholas Hoult is officially the cutest undead guy in the history of the genre.
Hoult doesn't look like Jimmy Stewart, and he doesn't sound like him, either. But Hoult possesses the same magical charisma as the Hollywood icon, the same galvanizing, instant rapport with the camera lens that translates into a vulnerability and a likability we can relate to.
"Warm Bodies"★ ★ ★
Starring: Nicholas Hoult, Teresa Palmer, John Malkovich, Rob Corddry, Analeigh Tipton, Dave Franco
Directed by: Jonathan Levine
Other: A Lionsgate Films release. Rated PG-13 for violence, language. 97 minutes
This is very important in "Warm Bodies," because Hoult plays a shuffling zombie who attacks shrieking humans and eats their brains to stay alive, uh, undead.
Fortunately, Hoult conjures up a relatively winning personality for a dead guy, aided by Levine's sly and self-aware voice-over narration (adapted from Isaac Marion's novel) that gives us the inside scoop on what goes through a zombie's own brain eight years after some unspecified horrific event turned the world into George Romero Land.
"I can't remember my name," Hoult tells us as he gives us a primer on his bleak world where zombies shuffle aimlessly through malls and airports, frequently menaced by poorly animated skeletal creatures nicknamed Bonies that look and move like characters in a cheap video game.
Hoult's zombie makes no apologies for eating people, but "at least I'm conflicted!"
One day Hoult's undead dude and fellow zombies, including his best pal M (Rod Corddry), attack humans foraging for pharmaceuticals. Hoult's not-so-undead libido becomes intrigued by the sight of a female fighter, Julie (the incredibly appealing Teresa Palmer).
With most of her squad killed and digested, Julie is about to become a snack when the cutest zombie in the world confronts her and pushes out a single word, "Safe."
He takes Julie to his home inside a jet liner where he has collected artifacts of his victims, including a phonograph that plays old standards such as Bruce Springsteen's "Hungry Heart," that now takes on an entirely different meaning.
Gradually, Julie realizes the lumbering cute guy poses no threat and slowly begins to trust him. He can only say "Rrrrr ..." when she asks his name, so she calls him R.
Yes, it's the start of a beautiful friendship.
Of course, Julie doesn't know that R previously killed her boyfriend Perry (Dave Franco) and ate his brains, which, in this twisted reinterpretation of zombie lore, gives R the memories of his victims, so he knows more about Julie than she can ever imagine.
As nutty as "Warm Bodies" sounds, it's a far more satisfying mashup of restrained PG-13 horror and teen romance than "The Twilight Saga," for it's a comedy that slides from terror into "Snow White" fantasy, but with the gender roles reversed.
The longer Julie knows R, the more articulate he becomes, and the more handsome his features become (the bloody goo and varicose veins on the neck weren't all that appealing, anyway).
But Julie's father Grigio (Chicago's own John Malkovich) is the ruthless leader of the human outpost walled off from the rest of the planet to ensure safety. She knows Dad would never understand her relationship with R.
Neither does Julie's best friend Nora (Analeigh Tipton). "I know that it's hard to meet guys ever since the apocalypse and all that," she says. But a corpse? Really?
As it turns out, the power of love, the need to connect, the attraction of shared experiences are greater than whatever resurrected the dead, who are now slowly regaining their humanity. They are learning to live once more.
It's a dopey, schmaltzy concept (the "E.T." heart lights are way, way over the top) but one carried out with panache and sincerity by Levine, who treats "Warm Bodies" not as a zombie movie, but a thinly disguised plea for humanity to save our world by letting what unites us triumph over what scares and divides us.
I had the pleasure to see "Warm Bodies" without knowing much about it, so when R secretly sneaks into the humans' military compound to see Julie, who has stepped out on a balcony, it came as a smart surprise to see how effortlessly this movie references Shakespeare's greatest romance.
Of course, if "Romeo and Juliet" had been a zombie movie, it would have had a humdinger of a happily-ever-after ending.