by J.D. Balthazar
Is it telling that the romantic lead, a mindless zombie named R, has more personality in one moan than Edward Cullen did throughout his entire franchise?
Okay, R (Nicholas Hoult) isn't exactly mindless, its more like he's lost. This version of the undead are sad, lost souls, trapped in dead bodies. They re-enact pieces of their former lives as they shamble about in the pursuit of brains. Brains for them are like ambrosia, they give snippets of memories that relieve that endless longing they can't understand. It's one of the best reasons I've ever seen for the zombie eating people aggression, not just survival but a need to connect to their former lives, even fleetingly.
That conceit, that detail, provides the crux for the plot. R collects things, and might have a bit more personality than your average zombie. Enter Julie (Teresa Palmer), who is going through a bit of a rough patch with her boyfriend Perry (Dave Franco). She and Perry are on a scouting expedition beyond the wall, and things kind of go to hell. I won't exactly explain what happens, but suffice it to say Perry leaves the scene, and R has some interesting new memories to devour that contain Julie which shifts his instincts from wanting to kill her, to wanting to protecting her.
Julie is left with an impossible choice -- go with this zombie that's acting strangely, abandoning her best friend Nora (Analeigh Tipton) in the process, or get eaten. This is the start of a truly special relationship, as R slowly regains some of his humanity. Julie is conflicted because she's the daughter of the commander of the last human settlement, who has been hardened by a personal loss to the point where he will always shoot first and ask questions later. He's played by a very subdued John Malkovich, and his presence was strong enough to bring some life to a relatively one-dimensional character.
R has a best friend, M (Rob Corddry), who doesn't understand R's need to protect Julie, which causes some nice conflict. R and M have a nice but subtle and mostly wordless friendship. In fact, besides R (who speaks quite a bit for a zombie and has a frequent inner-monologue which is fantastically self-deprecating), almost all the zombies have to portray emotion and growth with practically no dialogue.
That's both the strength and one of the weak points of the film. The emotional growth of the zombies is really effective, showing humanity popping in little by little, especially with R, whose character arc is really effective. Unfortunately, due to the short run-time, there wasn't quite enough time devoted to the rest of the zombies, who end up being not much more than the shambling masses. Besides that one quibble, this movie has excellent zombie effects (with almost no grue), perfectly chosen music, and offers a fun new take on the zombie apocalypse genre.
I never would've thought anyone could successfully pull off a zombie romance. I'm now convinced that anything is possible. I hold this one up with others of its kind like Shaun of the Dead and Zombieland, and I'm happy to call it my first favorite movie of the year.
3 out of 4 Warm bottles of beer and canned fruit cocktail.