It’s easy to dismiss the 2013 zombie film Warm Bodies as a mash-up between Romeo and Juliet and the zombie genre. It’s just as easy to guess that Hollywood saw this as a potential way to make a zombie film that would also appeal to girls, especially fans of Twilight. Taken on these terms, the movie fails to either be as touchingly romantic as a true romance film or as scary as a zombie movie.
The movie (written and directed by Jonathan Levine, based on a novel by Isaac Marion) also suffered due to its trailers, which emphasized the superficially clever aspects of the concept, extracting one-liners from the movie in ways that work a lot better in the trailer than in the full version. That clever, lighthearted trailer instantly invited comparisons to the brilliant Zombieland, essentially selling Warm Bodies as a clever spin on the zombie genre by linking it to the last and most successful film to do so. The only problem is that Warm Bodies isn’t Zombieland; it’s not all that clever a film, nor a fun romp. It gestures in these directions, especially through the mildly offbeat voice-over narration of the main character, the emo-looking zombie male simply named “R.” But Warm Bodies isn’t a farce.
The movie also fails to explain how zombies might recover, although it’s nice to see this explored. The idea that zombies might somehow “get better” is something a lot of zombie stories have referenced, especially as characters deal with the grief of losing their loved ones. But this is typically portrayed as part of the grieving process. There’s no way to deal with a zombie, except shooting it in the head. So it’s good to see Warm Bodies explore this idea, even if it doesn’t explain this idea. Sure, a body might fight off a zombie virus, but it’s hard to imagine a dead heart starting again. Even with the awesome power of love and human kindness.
Also, wouldn’t this mean that the revived zombies are essentially immortal? They haven’t aged, presumably, while shunting around as zombie corpses. Normal humans can’t heal a stopped heart, but these zombies apparently can. Presumably, they’ll go right on healing. Being a zombie who’s come back to life would thus be better than being an uninfected human, since the zombie virus (if that’s even what it is in Warm Bodies; it’s not clear) is effectively also an immortality virus. This is how my mind works, although I recognize that the film is really an allegory, especially for disaffection and alienation.
But despite all of this, Warm Bodies is a bold and meaningful film.
It is so precisely on this allegorical level. But where most have pointed to the film as reflecting today’s disconnected youth, I’d like to suggest that the movie goes further from that, using zombies as a way of exploring the way we understand the Other.
One of the ways we define ourselves as communities is in opposition to what we see as the Other. They are savages; therefore, we are sophisticated. These outside groups aren’t only foreign enemies, like rival nation-states. They’re also other cultures or subcultures within a given society. Frequently, these other groups are depicted in dehumanizing ways, as wild “savages,” as lacking basic human emotions (like valuing life or family or freedom), as dirty or illiterate, or simply as just plain weird and foreign (i.e. “just not like us”).
Sadly, this seems to be something humans in groups innately tend to do. Examples can be nationalistic, racial, religious, cultural, based on gender or sexual orientation, or any other perceived difference. We know the ancient Greeks wrestled with this, and it’s because of this fact that Aeschylus’s The Persians (which depicted the enemy as humans) was (and is) so revolutionary. In Medieval Europe, Jews were one Other and were believed to steal and eat Christian babies as part of their strange religious rituals. Tribal people were routinely discussed as savages. American slavers frequently discussed blacks as less than human. Racists continue such depictions by suggesting that their targets are prone to crime, don’t care about work or family, are illiterate, etc. Some of the most obvious creations of Others come from wartime; during World War II, the Japanese in particular were depicted as “not being like us” (one reason they were put by the U.S. into concentration camps), and some promulgated the idea that “the only good Jap is a dead Jap.” Of course, immigrants have long be demonized and continue to be so today. Homosexuals have also frequently been depicted as deranged and lacking in basic human self-control.
But recognizing it is often key to identifying when someone’s not being intellectually honest about an issue. When someone implies that people on welfare “don’t want to work,” they’re robbing this almost entirely powerless group of the basic human desire to feel productive and capable. Part of what was so appalling about Mitt Romney’s comments about 47% of America was the belief he expressed that this 47% (including veterans and the elderly, as well as the poor) refused to take responsibility for their own lives. Humans consider their actions and take responsibility for them, however imperfectly; those people don’t. When someone implies that Muslims produce suicide bombers because they don’t value their lives or their children’s lives, they’re suggesting that Muslims lack basic human components. (If it need be said, plenty of non-Muslims, including Christians, have been suicide bombers, as well as murderers, using the same religious justifications.) The idea that America’s perceived enemies “don’t value freedom” is similarly absurd and dehumanizing; no, someone might not value McDonald’s, but it’s part of being human that we don’t want to be incarcerated for no reason.
But my point here isn’t about any of these specific cases. My point is that this kind of dehumanizing is part of how we rob ourselves of empathy and justify what is otherwise unethical, up to and including genocide. If you think of another group as subhuman, it becomes a lot easier to shoot members of that group. But more insidiously, it becomes easy to be apathetic about that group being deprived of rights or treated unjustly.
What Warm Bodies has noted is that zombies are the ultimate Other. If you watch most zombie movies, the attitude towards zombies is essentially that “the only good zombie is a dead zombie.” Many zombie stories repeatedly warn against empathy with the enemy, and give readers or viewers plenty of examples to justify this dehumanization. Zombies are depicted as dirty savages, not only illiterate but incapable of speech or learning.
This is not simply because zombies, being dead, are no longer human. Vampires, who are also dead humans, are routinely depicted as thinking, feeling creatures. And there’s no reason why a zombie’s vocal chords would deteriorate so much that only guttural groans are possible. Zombies certainly don’t make much sense to begin with (corpses bloat and decay), but the zombie genre seems to go out of its way to make zombies into a subhuman Other. It’s as if that’s part of the enjoyment of the genre.
In fact, that zombie genre is less a subset of the supernatural or horror genres and more a subset of the war genre, using a quasi-supernatural element. Except that in these war stories, the “enemy” is literally dehumanized. Rendered as unthinking cannibals, incapable of learning or of culture, zombies have been stripped of anything that made them who they once were. They are not victims of a virus; they are what those victims become, which is dumb animal eating machines with no regard to life. Hell, zombies typically don’t even care much when they are injured, let alone when they injure others. The entire genre has come to be structured as if someone were writing a war story in which every propagandistic and dehumanizing aspect of war were made literal.
To be even more specific, the zombie genre reflects the subset of the war genre that reflects fear of infiltrators, seen during the Red Scare(s) and the “War on Terror.” Because in these war stories, the enemy that’s been reduced to a subhuman who thinks only of murder is us. In this respect, the dehumanizing aspect of zombie stories is even more potentially insidious, because it’s focused on animalistic hoards lurking “here at home,” rather than foreigners.
In addition, many zombie stories now seem to focus on the terrible things their protagonists are forced to do, echoing some of the worst post-9/11 strains, in which extraordinary threats have been used to justify the curtailing of hard-won civil liberties.
It’s the premise of Warm Bodies that zombies are victims, who might be subhuman but who are capable of redemption. Beneath the romance plot is something far more radical: the idea that even the ultimate subhuman Other, defined by its literalized dehumanization, can be acculturated into the Melting Pot.
To be sure, this metaphor isn’t perfect. The movie (and the novel it’s based on) has two categories of zombies. One, called “boneys,” aren’t shown as capable of redemption. Worse, it’s implied that normal zombies become boneys of their own accord, essentially giving up and wasting away. So if we push the metaphor, it suggests that those incapable of acculturating have only themselves to blame.
And of course, acculturation itself is problematic. It suggests that these subhuman others really ought to learn how to be human, which is essentially defined by white American culture. In this respect, it’s worth noting that the movie has a notable lack of ethnic minorities.
Still, the idea of perverting the zombie genre, which is so wrapped up in the fear of the Other (and the joy of killing the Other with moral impunity), and turning it into a tale of how the Other is more human than they appear, is really rather subversive and brilliant.
Here, the story’s obvious riffs on Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet achieve extra resonance. Yes, there’s the obvious amusement of seeing a zombie calling up to a human girl on her balcony. But Shakespeare’s play is (among other things) about the stupidity and self-destructiveness of murderous rivalries — and the damage this does on individual lives. Wrapped within a romantic tragedy, one could say that the play is about how having Others tears the human family apart. So adapting it into the zombie genre goes beyond clever Shakepearean callbacks. This adaptation uses what Shakespeare has built as a scalpel to slice apart the zombie genre, revealing the thrill of the Other that lay inside that genre.
This isn’t mere academic interpretation. While the film doesn’t truly excel at either horror or romance, nor the farcical cleverness that defined Zombieland, the movie’s best moments have everything to do with this sense of finding connections with the Other.
Take R’s dream, for example, in which he experiences one thing said to be unique to humans, yet his mind places even within this dream a human who tells him he’s not allowed to dream.
At one point in the film, a Blu-Ray case of the movie Zombie is held up to R’s head. It’s almost as if the movie is demonstrating how the Other doesn’t live up to the propaganda. A similar shot could be composed with a black man and a racist cartoon, or an actual Muslim and a Hollywood depiction of one.
Near the end of the film, we see a touching series of vignettes, illustrating zombies being integrated into the human family. One learns to play baseball, and looks very like an awkward human child who someone cares about enough to help. Another asks for help with his umbrella, complaining he has “zombie fingers,” and a woman takes the time to help. Here, the parallels between the zombie Other and the disabled, or the homeless, or the simply odd are quite clear, and the film gains emotional resonance from this fact.
Creating Others also lessens our own humanity. Montaigne pointed out that those who depicted tribes as “savages” often became savages themselves, by using their Other’s status as “savages” as justification for lying, theft, rape, slavery, and murder. We see this too in the film, as the zombies wind up seeming more sympathetic (and like the Replicants of Blade Runner, more passionate) than the so-called “humans.”
The final shot of the movie is of the human encampment dynamiting its walls, connecting itself again with the city around it. It’s a beautiful, resonant image (even if, like most of the movie, it works more on an allegorical level than a literal one).
It illustrates how fear of the Other causes us to build walls that separate us.
And of course, the wall has resonance with the walls that have been built on the southern border of the United States, in order to keep out people who have been depicted as dirty and as parasitic — and in some conservative rhetoric, as coming to America to deal drugs and kill white women.
This is, perhaps, the first post-post-9/11 zombie movie: a movie not about unending struggle with the inhuman hoards, intent on killing us in the homeland, but about moving beyond this mentality, getting over our fears, and welcoming our hated Others into our gated communities.
It makes us more human to do so.