Not Just Your Typical Zombie Film

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"From forth the fatal loins of these two foes, / A pair of star crossed lovers take their life." These words from Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet suggest that humans are controlled by destiny and fate, not by choice and accountability. Romeo and Juliet meet by fate; their families are at war by fate; and their story ends tragically by fate.

The foundation story appears in Greek mythology as "Pyramus and Thisbe," and is oddly set not in Greece, but in an unnamed location in the Orient. This suggests that the story has an even earlier foundation. It is also found in the Old Testament in the form of the story of Dinah, the Israelite daughter who goes for a walk in a heathen town and is taken by a local boy who wants to marry her. Shakespeare set his version of the story in Italy as Romeo and Juliet, and was so taken with the myth that he presented it again in A Midsummer Night's Dream through the clownish traveling troubadours. Prokofiev's ballet is another favorite, especially the powerful "Dance of the Knights" (Montagues and Capulets). Choreographer Jerome Robbins saw the exciting possibilities of Irish and Puerto Rican gangs duking it out through dance and convinced Leonard Bernstein and Arthur Laurents to write West Side Story. Other musicians and artists have adapted the story as well.

Often the sole focus of R&J is the love story, with the feuding families fading so far into the background that it is hard to understand why they are fighting, but that isn't always the case. One of the most fascinating interpretations I have seen of R&J was a recent production by the Hudson Valley Shakespeare Festival set in modern Afghanistan. In this version, Romeo is an American soldier, and Juliet is a local Muslim girl. Audiences truly "got it" in this interpretation when Juliet's mother appeared dressed in a burqa and her father smacked her so hard across the face that she fell down screaming. Still, her love for her soldier endured.

The core story of Romeo and Juliet has resonated throughout the centuries because it represents change and resistance to learned cultural values and prejudices. The star-crossed lovers from warring families epitomize independent thinking, change, tolerance, and acceptance. And it's a great love story to boot.

The latest offering is Warm Bodies, a film that opened this week. The movie focuses more on the differences between the two families, and the allusions are subtler than in most adaptations; in fact, it didn't hit me that R&J was the core story until the balcony scene, and then it all fell into place: the girl named Julie (Teresa Palmer), her dead boyfriend named Perry (Dave Franco), her new boyfriend known as "R" (Nicholas Hoult), her friend Nora (Analeigh Tipton) who wants to be a nurse. Oh — and did I mention that R is a Corpse?

The "idle class" is now made up of poor people, while the wealthy are working their tails off. We are being eaten alive by the entitlements given to the poor.

This unusual adaptation is set in a dystopian future where an incurable disease has turned humans into walking corpses who feed on living humans. Truly serious cases become "boneys," who "will eat anything." Uninfected humans have built a gigantic wall around their city to protect themselves, but they need supplies from the other side. At the center of the film is a love story between Julie, who goes outside the wall with her young friends to forage for medicine, and "R," a cute and quirky young Corpse who narrates the story. He communicates through grunting and doesn't know his own name, but he begins to change because of his growing love for Julie.

The film is fun and clever despite its zombified cast, and the young lovers are fresh and sweet. (Well, she's fresh. He smells like rotten meat — in fact, he protects her from other Corpses by smearing goo on her face to cover her fresh scent. But he does it in a way that is as likely to elicit an "Awww" as an "Ewww" from the audience.)

What sets this film apart is the depth of possibilities provided by the core story — the star-crossed lovers from warring cultural groups who find a common ground of understanding and tolerance. I don't know what director Jonathan Levine and author Isaac Marion intended audiences to think, but that's the beauty of a well-formed myth or metaphor — it can be interpreted in a multitude of ways. I think this version makes an insightful statement about the conflict between working Americans and nonworking Americans.

As the film opens, R is wandering through an abandoned airport. Other Corpses wander there too. "I don't remember my name anymore," he thinks out loud. "Sometimes I look at others and try to imagine what they used to be. We're all dead inside." Like Gregor Samsa, the traveling salesman in Kafka’s The Metamorphosis, who wakes up one morning to discover that he has become a bug, R and the others in the airport have succumbed to the rat race. Work has dehumanized them. "It must have been so much better,” he muses, “when we could communicate and feel things."

Corpses don't work or produce anymore. They just eat people. I see this as a metaphor for the welfare state, in which more and more people are being infected by entitlements. A wall of intolerance is being erected today between working people and nonworking people. There is a deadness in the eye of people who scurry from business meeting to business meeting without time for love and relationships, but the tragedy of not working or producing is even more deadening. As the infection spreads and more people become nonproducers, even the producers begin to suffer. The collapsing standard of living is not caused by the wealthy having too much, but by the 47 % producing too little. Ironically, the "idle class" is now made up of poor people, while the wealthy are working their tails off. We are being eaten alive by the entitlements given to the poor.

Another interesting social commentary in this film is the way young people are treated. They are the draftees. While the older folks remain safely behind the wall, the youths are given a pep talk about honor and patriotism by Julie's father (John Malkovich) and then sent out to face the dangers of the Corpses and Boneys. Their mission is to bring back supplies for the grownups inside. Julie and Nora look sexy and buff as they cock their rifles to defend themselves. (And that's a little creepy, given all the crazy shootings that have been experienced in America lately.) When the older folks do go outside, they travel inside tanks and jeeps. They are the cavalry; the kids are the infantry. I guess that's where the word "infantry" comes from. How despicable is war.

What changes R? Partly it's the chemistry of love: his attraction to Julie reboots his heart. But it's more than that. Caught in the world outside the wall and surrounded by Corpses and Boneys who want to eat her, Julie needs protection. She needs food. She needs warmth, shelter, clothing, and entertainment. And R has to provide all these things for her. In the process of producing and providing, he becomes human again. I love that idea, whether Jonathan Levine intended it or not.

What changes the other Corpses? Hope. As they see R change through the power of love (or the power of producing), they gain hope that they might change too. They begin to sleep and to dream again, which is something Corpses aren't able to do. Their dreams cause them to wake up and act for themselves. They begin to come alive.

But they Boneys don't like it. They are like the politicians and welfare bureaucrats who want to keep the poor in their place, receiving their spiritually deadening entitlements but never learning to live or to feel joy. As R laments, "The Boneys are too far gone to change."

The Corpses are not "too far gone," however. They just need to wake up. We are surrounded by welfare Corpses today, and the infection is spreading to epidemic proportions. Some have become Boneys, but others can be cured. They can be changed through the power of pride and production and love. If they will join the Townies to fight against the Boneys, they can dream again. And wake up again. And live again.


Editor's Note: Review of "Warm Bodies," directed by Jonathan Levine. Summit Entertainment, 2013, 97 minutes.



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