New to DVD, Warm Bodies (2013) seems on the surface like a zombie Twilight calculated to win the high school kid date movie of the weekend box office and then vanish into DVD. Until I actually saw it, I was ready to fire a bullet in its head sight unseen. Maybe you did too --if you're like me and think the zombies have become the very thing George Romero was trying to satirize in the original 1968 Night of the Living Dead, the nation's hunger for moving targets --- you may have scratched the entry wound on your forehead at the glowing reviews. Following the herd, I grudgingly rented it. Lo! I was a crying mess by the end. Is it the most beautiful film I've seen all year? Mebbe yes.
Then the same thing happened with ParaNorman (2012) which also has the expected zombie attacks and retributions, this time involving a centuries old curse after a girl was hung as a witch, and a nice boy who can talk to the dead. Ostracized by his community and misunderstood by his family, he has no good reason to try and save them, since it was a hundred years ago he too would surely have been hung. The lesson is profound not just for zombie fearing redneck mob mentality, but for smartass witches like me. Forgiveness and tolerance starts here.
What is happening to our horror comedies? Are we finally attempting to solve our American issues, to answer the cryptic misanthropic riddle Romero first posed to us back in 1968? Having felt ostracized most of my life, even with no outward hostility on the part of anyone around me, I would love to create a witchy tornado and destroy the fearful mob mentality faux Christian dickheads who would still deny the benevolence of weed, who cry about freedom when they mean freedom to persecute anyone remotely different. How I would love to whisk them off to Hell in one grand witchy gesture. But... maybe ParaNorman and Warm Bodies are reminders I'd only become as bad as them if I did, and giving up hate begins at home.
These two films are among a new brave type, one that hopes nakedly and unafraid that America's doomsday prepper mentality might one day be exchanged for a more inclusive optimism. A budding teen romance can infect the whole world as quickly as AIDs. Maybe love is a kind of anti-virus, a collective fusion, deliberately reaching across lines not only of gender, but class, race, dimensions, and now living/dead status.
Maybe it's personal. A staple of firing ranges, the paper zombie target at left has become the new generic curly-haired 50s mugger sketch at red state firing ranges. Sure it's a nice drawing. Peppered with bullet holes, one is hung on the door to my brother Fred's Arizona garage, through which I creep to quietly smoke each Xmas. Standing in the kitchen last year, pouring diet coke after diet coke, I studied every inch of this zombie broad and though I like her hair I'm disturbed that my brother thinks it's 'okay' to shoot an unarmed hottie at 30 paces, effigy or not, when all she wants to do is suck face, as Henry Fonda used to say.
But as we learn in The Road, the only thing that will save you in the post-civilization arena isn't the gun collection but rather the courage to trust and love unconditionally. America is built on the constant tension between these two points--the open heart and the squozen trigger--with the majority of zombie films driven towards the red state gun side, which sees the worst in one's fellow man, with a caustic black wit optional. But the beauty of Bodies, this post-apocalyptic revamping of Romeo and Juliet, is that it sees deeper into the fabric of this alive / dead divide and actually offers a kind of hope for the future. All we need is a common enemy, a zombie demon who we all can unite against - as always. Luckily Warm Bodies gives us one. Why not?
Warm Bodies resolves and begins to heal wounds lingering in the emotional psyche of our collective artistic reality since West Side Story. Little did I know that within ten minutes after the film was over, holding back my gushing sobs in front of my zombie girlfriend, I learned via e-mail from my ex-wife that our dog, Inga, was dead. I should have seen it coming. She was 13, but in my post-Warm Bodies catharsis it devastated me. I hadn't seen Inga since my ex-wife moved with her to Oregon six years ago, but it didn't matter. She was part of me, and that news coupled to the emotional ending of Bodies proved such a one-two punch on my sensitive heart that I had to wonder if I was being set up by some cosmic bitch punker-outter.
Whatever, I wouldn't want Inga buried in the Pet Sematary, such as it is, but the parallels were undeniable. Warm Bodies had ripped me open, and Inga's demise had pulled out my hideous heart. But hey, it was proof I was becoming human all over again. My undead disaffect armor in tatters around my chair, I made a pretty target.
The zombie metaphor has become such as easy mark that shows like The Walking Dead --that treat Romero's mythos like its some pious bible--make me furious. With this AMC show the dead are longer a metaphor but a chance for drab overacting and head shots, a soap box for sanctimonious overacting and subtle racism (black characters endangering the group welfare because they're too naive and overwrought to understand their moms shambling around outside aren't really their moms, etc.) You think this is a game? A joke? These people had families! Names! Don't you get it! (see more of my outrage here.)
But both ParaNorman and Warm Bodies aren't just speaking to red state lynch mob mentality, but the seething righteous condemnation of people like me. So let it be noted: though the landscape is filled with Twilight cash-in horror-romances wherein a girl has to choose between two different monster boys with their shirts off, Warm Bodies provides something different: it goes to the source material and it dares, in the end, to go wide, all the way back out into the light. ParaNorman does the same thing, in reverse, refuses to give up on the townsfolk even though they surely deserve to be destroyed. Not since Gene Wilder made peace at last with his hideous offspring in Young Frankenstein (my honorarium here) or the cannibal mutant got the girl (Tucker and Dale vs. Evil - here) have horror staples been so effectively pulled from their scar tissue and replaced with the loving stitch. If that's not enough to spark your dead horror film heart back to life, brother Fred, blast away! Hot hipster zombie beeyatch at 12 o'clock! I forgive you in advance, just ease up if you see a shambling black lab-rottweiler mix... it is my child. Inga! Inga, doncha know me?