Here’s what happens in Warm Bodies, more or less: A zombie named R falls in love with a human girl, and that love starts bringing him back to life. In fact, this love is so powerful that infects more than just R — lots of other zombies start to wake up, regaining their powers of speech and ability to refrain from eating other people’s brains.
R and his love interest, Julie, form an unorthodox, shaky friendship that begins after he eats her boyfriend’s brain and falls in love with the memories of her. (Hey, I said it was unorthodox.) As weird as their story is, it’s also kind of beautiful. Theirs is a calm, comforting kind of love that begins as a reaction to tragedy — it’s not passionate and impulsive. Warm Bodies is kind of the anti-vampire love story, because what R really wants is just to have Julie lay her head on his chest for the night, not to ravage her or drink or blood (or eat her brains) or whatever. It’s a love story where they give each other space.
I summarized this plot to one of our booksellers, and he informed me that it’s not a real zombie book if the undead can come back to life. He was right, if you’re looking at traditional zombie mythology. But if you see zombie stories as a metaphor of human struggle against slavery, this undead love story starts to look a little more legit.
At first, the world of Warm Bodies seems pretty zombie-typical: The infrastructure of the civilized world has collapsed in on itself in the face of a growing hoard of undead. But, while this breakdown is first, predictably, blamed on world wars, widespread disease and an over-reliance on technology, soon another culprit is suggested: Maybe this happened because individuals insulated themselves against emotional contact with comforts like iPods, entertainment and solitary living. The slavery of this society is individualism at any cost, the need to build a cocoon of safety around yourself that isn’t worth sacrificing for anything, not even humanity, freedom, or love. By avoiding connection and community, humans literally turned themselves into monsters.
On closer inspection, the zombies in Isaac Marion’s book are more human than the non-infected people. They can’t seem to make connections, but they keep trying. Slowly, imperfectly, (and pretty creepily), the zombies have their own version of society. They form shadows of old relationships like marriage and parenthood. They build a church. They even try to have undead sex. The main reason they eat brains is not for sustenance, but for the bursts of memory they get while snacking — they’re so desperate for even an echo of humanity that they’d do anything for it. Meanwhile, the human compound is all about protection and prevention. They don’t celebrate their ability to love each other, and in that way they’re actually more zombie-like than the undead.
Maybe Warm Bodies doesn’t belong in the zombie canon (whatever that is), but an extended metaphor about the intangible, almost magical power of love to bring life back to someone who’s practically walking dead through life is a story worth telling. This book has a delicate beauty that shines through all the brains-eating, zombie-shooting, apocalyptic gore. It’ll be interesting to see if the filmmakers are able to retain that in the movie version that comes out Friday.