Warning: the following post contains a bit of a spoiler about the end of Warm Bodies. Read on at your discretion.
With a decent opening weekend gross mostly attributed to young, female moviegoers, Warm Bodies is supposedly confirming its status as the new Twilight. Of course, the vampire love story made a lot more money and received mainly negative reviews, while this new zombie romantic comedy (or zom-rom-com), is certified fresh at Rotten Tomatoes and received a B+ CinemaScore grade but only earned about a third of what it cost to produce.
There’s an expectation for Warm Bodies to have strong legs, however, through word of mouth. And hopefully that buzz extends to more male viewers, who should appreciate that it’s not as sappy as it seems, even though its main message is the cheesiest of cheesy: “love conquers evil.” Sure, we’ve seen the power of love employed as a weapon by The Beatles and to turn Darth Vader and to keep The Princess Bride‘s Westley alive, but over time the idea that “all you need is love” has become corny enough to ruin the ends of Ghostbusters II and The Fifth Element, among others, with too much sentiment.
Maybe it’s that we got more cynical or that love saving the day became more associated with childhood things like the Care Bears. But also nobody would ever accept a horror movie villain like Jason Voorhees or Michael Myers being overcome by hugs and kisses. Monsters of yore were often tragically romantic, with love being a crutch for impossible beaus like King Kong, the Wolf Man, Gill-Man (aka the Creature From the Black Lagoon), Quasimodo (aka the Hunchback of Notre Dame), etc. Later, though, audiences preferred unstoppable slashers and boogeymen that are completely void of emotionality.
Also, in 21st Century fairy tales, the innovation has been to turn the beauty into a beast (a la Shrek, Twilight and, to a gender-swapping degree, Avatar) rather than transforming the creature into a prince. This is overturned with the zombie protagonist of Warm Bodies becoming a real boy once he’s loved by a human girl. However, it would still be one thing if the movie simply stuck to that singular Beauty and the Beast model without having a single couple’s act of hand holding spark a revolutionary mortal transformation in the rest of the zombie population.
The key to love conquering a single monster is as easy as having another, truer monster that takes the role of ultimate evil away from the central “beast,” whether it’s the Emperor in Return of the Jedi or the egotistical huntsman/prince from classic fairy tales or, in the case of Warm Bodies, the absolutely heartless and terrifying “boneys.” But the idea that love should not only conquer but transform a zombie should be seen as less likely and possibly even insulting if we were to align the otherness of zombies to any real world distinction where the star-crossed lovers in the film parallel interracial romance or something like that. If “R” (Nicholas Hoult) were any kind of monster other than one who used to be human, the need for him to change would be all wrong.
Yet the quick and total curing of zombies through the acknowledgment of love is on paper extremely cloying and downright silly (imagine thousands of other anthropomorphic buffalos becoming human at the end of Beauty and the Beast), so how is it that this ending doesn’t play as such? It could be that there is just enough humor, both in direct comedy and a greater absurdity in the concept that keeps it from being mushy. The film is actually still cynical enough with its satirical criticisms of modern humanity’s lack of personal interaction and appreciation of life that the “love conquers all” theme isn’t even about romance. And it’s aimed at humanity rather than zombies. The idea that it takes braindead creatures to develop and appreciate stronger hearts while the living have seemed to put more stake in calculated actions rather than their feelings is sort of brilliant.
There is some debate about whether or not Warm Bodies really fits into the zombie movie genre since it plays so loose with this monster’s conventions. It’s definitely first and foremost a rom-com, even more than the king of zom-rom-coms, Shaun of the Dead (which is above all just a screwball separation comedy set amidst a zombie outbreak), but like that film it should also be recognized for its underlying cynicism and basic social commentary, both of which are major elements of zombie movies rather than romances. And in the end, the deeper consideration of the “love conquers all” theme is bigger than the beauty conquers the beast trope.
As a side note: guys shouldn’t fear that girls are appropriating a genre that they aren’t normally into. There’s nothing threatening about a movie in which “girls are audibly swooning over the deadly-sincere antics” of a sweeter take on the zombie movie. “Guy movie” guys going to see Warm Bodies are not going to transform into rom-com lovers so much as the “chick flick” audience might actually instead become more interested in the gory Romero and Fulci variety of zombie flicks. But unlike the rules of monster romances, there shouldn’t be any reason why the guys and girls can’t just get together and remain themselves while enjoying the parts of Warm Bodies that cater best to each of their sensibilities.