R (Hoult) is a zombie, but he’s somewhat conflicted about it. When he eats the brain of her boyfriend, Perry (Franco), he falls in love with Julie (Palmer) and begins to strain against the limits of an undead life. But for these star-cross’d lovers, there are obvious obstacles to a happy ending.
The implied cause of the zombie apocalypse in this rom-zom-com is our collective addiction to technology and Kim Kardashian — which all feels worryingly plausible. But tempering any caustic edge is its encouraging message that love can redeem us all, even if we’re afflicted by a lust for human brains.
It’s not the most obvious premise for a film: despite all the paranormal romances we’ve seen since Twilight hit, zombies have remained commendably undateable. That was, until Nicholas Hoult’s R, who combines the lurching and drooling with an understated wit and existential concern that there might be more to life than moaning and eating people. Thanks to that rarest of things, a helpful voiceover, he paints a black and bleakly comic portrait of zombie existence and explains his strange urge to protect Teresa Palmer’s Julie instead of feasting on her cerebrum. And if 2013 brings us a more beautifully played comedy moment than a zombie telling himself, “Don’t be creepy, don’t be creepy,” as he approaches a girl, we’ll be doing well.
During the brilliant first hour, it becomes clear that this zombie-meets-girl story is a surprisingly universal tale about the difficulty of communicating your feelings when it really matters. The tentative steps towards friendship that R and Julie take feel authentic, and if she’s a less well-drawn character than he is, at least you can see why they like one another. The slight turn towards action in the final act, when R faces danger from Julie’s militaristic father (John Malkovich) and the thoroughly skeletal “boneys” try to quash any hint of life among the masses, is less original but not without humour.
Shot in somehow luminous shades of grey by cinematographer Javier Aguirresarobe and played like a quality indie, the fact that the pair communicate via vinyl records and experience flashbacks in a sort of Instagram-filtered glow gives this a hipster vibe. But there’s nothing studied or cool about this romance — the corpse who goes a-courtin’ is remarkably sincere.
Somewhere between the pop-culture deconstruction of Zombieland and the skewed romance of (500) Days Of Summer, this manages to make the apocalypse seem charming. Warm is the right word.