Brains. They’re not just for devouring anymore.
Gray matter has always been a staple of zombie movies. It just rarely plays as big a role behind the scenes as it does in the charmingly clever “Warm Bodies.”
The zombie romantic comedy — a genre to be known henceforth as the zom-rom-com — finds a young corpse (a terrific Nicholas Hoult of “Skins” and “X-Men: First Class”) shuffling aimlessly around an airport.
He can’t remember how he got there or anything else about his pre-zombie life — including his name, but he thinks it started with an R.
What R lacks in verbal skills, though, he makes up for with a witty, ironic inner monologue. It’s as though just before “The O.C.” left TV, it took a wild turn and zombified Seth Cohen.
(For you kids out there, “The O.C.” was “Gossip Girl” before “Gossip Girl” was. TV was what we watched shows on before iPads. Also, texting Tumblr emoji One Direction.)
Eight years after the zombie outbreak, survivors led by the militant General Grigio (John Malkovich) have fortified themselves in what may be the last remaining human settlement.
During a mission beyond its towering steel walls, a scout team is attacked by the undead. In the ensuing chaos, R and Julie (Teresa Palmer, “I Am Number Four”), the general’s daughter, meet cute — or as cute as things can be considering that R just finished chowing down on her boyfriend (Dave Franco).
To be fair, R is a self-loathing zombie, disgusted with himself for eating humans. (He also questions what he’s doing with his “life” and realizes he should have better posture.)
It turns out that dining on brains instills a zombie with that person’s memories, which leads R to rescue/kidnap Julie and take her to the abandoned jetliner he calls home.
When she eventually comes to realize he doesn’t think of her as takeout food, the two begin to bond over R’s record collection. He’s hoarded everything from Guns ‘N Roses to Bob Dylan to John Waite over the years because, as he struggles to mumble, vinyl sounds “more alive.” And as Julie begins to see R as a person rather than a monster, he, too, slowly becomes more alive.
Despite its horror roots, “Warm Bodies” more closely adheres to the legacy of John Hughes than George A. Romero.
The way R and Julie kill time at the airport — a result of R’s ruse that if they left right away, the other zombies would notice and eat her — feels straight out of “The Breakfast Club.”
And, like the hero of every great ’80s teen comedy, R is the ultimate outsider.
Lacking social skills — along with most motor skills — he’s alone except for his best friend, M (a pitch-perfect Rob Corddry). Although, as R narrates, by best friend he means “we occasionally grunt and stare awkwardly at each other.”
“Warm Bodies” also owes an obvious debt to “Romeo and Juliet” — R and Julie, Romeo and Juliet, it’s not exactly subtle — down to a balcony scene played, like most things, for laughs. It may have even been delivered with a wink if zombiehood hadn’t left R with such limited facial expressions, he’s come to rival those botoxers on Bravo.
It’s one of several feel-good homages, including a hilarious take on the “determined group walking in slow motion” cliche and Julie’s friend’s (Analeigh Tipton) grabbing a cracked iPod to play Roy Orbison’s “Oh Pretty Woman” during R’s big makeover. The only thing obviously missing is the “Can’t Buy Me Love”-style slow clap.
From writer-director Jonathan Levine (“50/50,” “The Wackness”), who adapted Isaac Marion’s debut novel, “Warm Bodies” feels like the thinking teen’s “Twilight.”
At times, the story is constrained by some of the very conventions it sends up. And you could argue that, much like the glut of vampire fiction, there’s already been an onset of zombie fatigue.
But, between the laughs, there’s something genuinely touching in Hoult’s portrayal as R labors to be cool while emoting almost entirely through his dead, Zooey Deschanel-sized eyes.
It’s yet more proof that the only organ “Warm Bodies” celebrates more than the brain is the heart.
And if you can’t get swept up in all that, check for a pulse. You, too, just may be dead inside.
Christopher Lawrence is the film critic for the Las Vegas Review-Journal.