Book Review: Warm Bodies by Isaac Marion

R has problems. Not least of which is the fact that he’s a zombie. Part of the living dead in a post-apocalyptic world overrun with the leading dead. No, that’s not really R’s biggest issue. The thing that’s driving R a little nuts nowadays? R is thinking. Not only thinking, but he’s narrating Isaac Marion’s debut novel “Warm Bodies”.

R doesn’t know who he is, or where he’s been, or why he’s been walking around in a suit and nice red tie. He only knows that he’s dead, and yet, not really. His buddy M is equally dead, and yet, not really, though M seems less concern about such existential questions. Then again, M is mostly too busy being a (dead) ladies man, though that seems like a fool’s errand, given that, being dead, he has no blood circulation, and thus, lack the ability to do anything about, or with, his ladies. Don’t tell him that, though. M likes his status as the hunk of the undead.

Life in a post-apocalyptic world overrun by zombies is an easygoing one for R and M. They “live” in an airport with other zombies, and only occasionally shuffle into the city for food. The surviving humans have erected mini-cities inside domed sports arenas within the bigger cities, re-creating the world they remember while surrounded by towering concrete from the old world. It’s a shitty, miserable existence, but it’s living.

During one of their food runs, R and M run across a group of survivors that include Perry and his girlfriend, Julie. R proceeds to eat Perry, which is when he starts remembering things. Possibly even memories. Perry’s memories, as it turns out. For you see, there is a theory amongst the surviving humans that by eating brains, the zombies can actually, for a time, share their victim’s memories. As it turns out, this is very much the case, and having remembered Julie from Perry’s memories, R decides, quite on the spot, to save her from being munched on by the other zombies, including his buddy M.

What’s a zombie to do? R decides to take Julie back with him to the airport. First, by disguising her as a walking dead (this includes smearing copious amounts of blood on her to hide that “living” freshness), and then hiding her out in his airplane bungalow from the other zombies, including his, yes, zombie wife and zombie children — both given to him by the Boneys. Oh right, the Boneys. They are zombies whose skins have all but peeled off, and are now little more than walking bones. Just as R can’t quite get a handle on who or what he is, he can’t understand how the Boneys exist as, essentially, walking piles of bones. Not only that, but the Boneys seem to have created their own religion, spend all their time chanting, and have become the de facto “leaders” of the undead. It’s a pretty damn strange sight, to be sure, and no one is more confused about the Boneys’ “rise” than our hero R. As such, R wants nothing to do with the Boneys. Unfortunately for him, Julie’s presence not only stirs something in R (and no, I’m not talking about the stirring down there just yet), it also has a profound effect on the other Dead in the airport. The Boneys, being the current rulers of the Dead, are not pleased.

Julie, for her part, isn’t quite sure how to respond to being saved/kidnapped by R. Julie is one of those emotionally damaged girls, and being absconded by a zombie that has just munched on her boyfriend (though she doesn’t know this last part), while being very traumatic, is not exactly at the very top of her list of “crap things that have happened to me”. She’s young, beautiful, and whip-smart. But she also has something of a self-destructive streak in her, owing no small part to a dictatorial father and what she feels is the suffocation of her walled-in stadium city.

“Warm Bodies” is currently being developed into a movie by Summit Entertainment, with Jonathan Levine directing and Nicholas Hoult (currently playing Beast in “X-Men: First Class”) starring as R and Teresa Palmer (“I am Number Four”) as Julie. I would imagine that Hoult will be spending most of his screentime looking “dead” and grunting out short lines. R’s slow re-mastery of the English language takes up much of the book, and he never actually turns into a wordsmith. R (by way of Isaac Marion) does weave quite a captivating tale in first-person, but unless the movie is full of voiceover narration by R, young Mr. Nicholas Hoult will have to put on quite the physical show.

Teresa Palmer as Julie should be easier to portray in the movie. Julie is a spirited survivor with excessive baggage that probably trumps R’s problems. The story moves quickly from R’s airport to Julie’s walled-in city, and it probably has an ending that is completely too pat and abstract for my taste, with Marion becoming nearly incomprehensible as he dives and dives into flowery prose full of conceits that almost feels like he’s just grabbing at straws. It’s very nice to read, to be sure, but it’s never going to fly in a movie. Or if they try to adapt it as-is, it will come across as incredibly silly and a huge honking deus ex machina. I am anxious to see the final battle between the city’s Dead and Living, though. Should be a fun, epic battle.

“Warm Bodies” has moments where Isaac Marion really excels. For instance, every time the novel stops the action to hop down the rabbit hole that is R’s train of thoughts, or his commiseration with Perry, still alive somewhere in his consciousness, the prose is captivating. After a while, though, it seems as if Marion, like his hero R, didn’t really know where all of this is going, and R ends up being mostly an observer, while Julie ends up doing most of the work. Which is frustrating, especially since R has been so pro-active up to that point, fighting other zombies to keep Julie alive, and even defending Julie’s honor against some drunks in another scene.

“Warm Bodies” will definitely make for an interesting movie. It’s not your traditional zombie movie, and descriptions calling it a “zombie romance” are on target. R is an intriguing hero, and Julie an impressive heroine. And if the folks at Summit are listening, consider Matthew Lillard (below) for M. I swear, I had Lillard in my head the whole time while I was reading the book. In many ways, M is the book’s comic relief, the unwavering best buddy (a role Lillard excels in, just as Freddie Prinze Jr.), who can also throw down. Lillard would kill it.