This contains heavy spoilers for Warm Bodies.
Shit’s fucked up. That, to some extent, has always been one of the main themes of zombie movies. Since George Romero invented the genre with Night of the Living Dead back in 1968, zombie movies have always had a certain amount of cynicism for the human condition. After all, the main trope of every zombie movie is that we learn it’s humans, not zombies, that are the real monsters.
Recent years have seen a change in that tone though. Zombie stories have gone from being cynical to downright nihilistic. The Walking Dead is the best example of this change; this is a story where there is no hope, where any good moment is a short respite from the hellish nature of the world. Modern zombie (and apocalypse-oriented) stories seem to revel in being bummers, in coming to the conclusion that we’re all doomed.
That feels like a betrayal of what George Romero was doing. While all of the his Dead films end with massacres, none end with nihilism (except maybe Diary of the Dead, but the less said about that film, the better). The closest he gets is Night, which ends with Ben being ‘accidentally’ shot by a zombie-hunting posse, but even that film’s finale indicates that the zombie outbreak is, more or less, over. That’s an ending laden with cynicism, but not despair - yes, humanity is fucked up, but it has another day to figure it out.
Future Dead films all end on moments of hope. At the end of Dawn Peter and Francine take off in a helicopter, looking for something better. At the end of Day John, Sarah and McDermott are safe on a tropical island. Riley and friends escape the city in Land of the Dead, and hero zombie Big Daddy has a win. Romero’s most recent Dead film, the vastly underrated Survival of the Dead, is all about trying to live with the zombie problem; it’s a movie about how to deal with something that seemed impossible to deal with, an essentially and fundamentally hopeful position.
Warm Bodies continues that tenuous theme of hope, and it goes big with it. Warm Bodies is the anti-Walking Dead in many ways, but mostly in its insistence that shit is fucked up right now, but it will get better.
Warm Bodies is the zombie movie we need right now. The genre has fallen on hard times, which is paradoxical because it’s more popular than ever. But The Walking Dead, which has driven zombies to the forefront of the popular consciousness, has taken what Romero did and stripped it of any meaning and depth; the show is bad soap opera with moments of intense gore. The zombies in The Walking Dead mean nothing, have no metaphorical value beyond being handy dandy threat generators.
The Walking Dead’s popularity is disturbing because people tune in not to see the world reflected back at them but to see a world they actually wish to live in. As our world gets more complex and more connected and as we get farther from any actual survival needs, people look to apocalyptic stories not as warnings or horrors but as fantasies. They like to imagine a cell phone-free world where they can act out primal urges, where the only concern day to day is survival and not filing TPS reports or getting the kids to softball practice. Stories that were, a generation ago, terrifying glimpses of the future are now almost a comforting scenario. Audiences long to be tested, to be taken out of the Prozac-ed modern life and confronted with something real.
Warm Bodies understands those same urges, but rather than wallow in misery porn, it sees the solution as simple: connection. While The Walking Dead and other modern nu-zombie stories take the apocalyptic wasteland as a metaphor-free fantasyland, Warm Bodies uses it as a way to explore modern feelings of disconnection. It’s not subtle - the movie opens with a sequence where everybody’s on their phones that’s juxtaposed with zombies shuffling about - but it’s in the best tradition of the Romero films. The zombie apocalypse isn’t something we should be longing for, it’s something that reflects what’s wrong with us today.
The solution to our ills are simple, the movie argues: love. The love between R and Julie is so powerful and unique that it triggers a change in all the other zombies, allowing them to slowly come back to life. That’s certainly a big departure from any established zombie lore (another thing the movie has going for it, by the way. The Walking Dead is so slavishly, unimaginatively stuck with Dawn of the Dead zombie rules that it’s essentially fan fiction), but it’s not a big departure from Romero’s themes. While humans always end up being the biggest monsters in Romero movies, it’s humanity’s penchant for sticking together that always saves the heroes. Every Romero film ends with people working together to escape (except, again, Diary) because Romero understands the basic dichotomy of existence: hell is other people, but so is heaven.
Warm Bodies certainly has the most hopeful, happy ending of any zombie story ever - the zombies and humans have come together and figured out how to live in peace. The enormous wall the surviving humans have erected comes crashing down, and instead of hiding everybody seeks contact. The apocalypse, it turns out, wasn’t so definitive. There’s life after the end of the world, and unlike The Walking Dead, that life is worth living.
The 21st century’s been a tough one so far. Two wars, a massive economic downturn, social and political upheaval across the globe - we’ve all had it hard. I get the trend to nihilism, towards feeling like maybe it wouldn’t be so bad if this whole world just stopped turning and everybody got off. After a while, though, nihilism gets boring and what seems truly radical is hope. Warm Bodies may be a tame zombie movie when it comes to grit and gore, but it’s a radical movie when it comes to the modern apocalypse trend. Warm Bodies has the balls to stand up and tell us that it’s going to be alright.