What is it about zombies that fascinates us? Whether it is on screen or on paper, zombies have been a definitive part of the dystopian and science-fiction canon for decades. George A. Romero’s 1968 film Night of the Living Dead essentially introduced film audiences to the concept of a zombie, and the 1985 comedy/horror film The Return of the Living Dead (not a related franchise film) taught us that the zombie meal of choice is in fact the human brain. Why the brain? We’ve never really known. Obviously the brain is the quintessential quality of the human race. Perhaps zombies use the brain to replace some of their dead cells in order to keep walking and quasi-functioning. Sadly, we’ve never been privy to the inner thoughts of a zombie. Until now.
“What wonderful thing didn’t start out scary?”
Isaac Marion’s 2010 novel Warm Bodies is told from the perspective of a zombie, R, living in zombie-ravaged America. As readers, we don’t know what year it is, but if I were to hazard a guess I would say 2050+ as decades of natural disasters and conflict are alluded to. Right away, it is clear that R isn’t your average brand of zombie. His internal monologue presents a pensive and thoughtful character, capable of highly developed thought processes (though, with a distinct inability to translate thoughts into coherent spoken sentences).
“In my mind I am eloquent; I can climb intricate scaffolds of words to reach the highest cathedral ceilings and paint my thoughts. But when I open my mouth, everything collapses.”
On a routine scavenge into the city for food (read: brains), R makes a most peculiar and unexpected decision. After killing and eating the brain of a young man named Perry, R experiences an intense memory of Perry’s girlfriend, Julie. When R locates Julie in the place the zombies have attacked, he smears blood on her, tells her to be quiet, and escorts her safely out of the building with the rest of the zombie cohort. R hides Julie in his dilapidated aeroplane home while he tries to figure out what to do with her. As R and Julie grow closer, R starts to exhibit strange symptoms. He starts to dream his own dreams again, and his ability to speak improves rapidly. What makes the situation even more remarkable is that the changes aren’t just isolated to R; other zombies in their airport compound start to change as well. As the unthinkable happens to R, Julie and the surviving humans are forced to consider the possibility that there is something much deeper going on with the zombies than they had ever imagined possible.
“There’s no benchmark for how life’s ‘supposed’ to happen. There is no ideal world for you to wait around for. The world is always just what it is now, it’s up to you how you respond to it.”
In many ways, Warm Bodies is an existentialist text. The post-apocalyptic world is absurd and meaningless from the perspective of R and Perry, irrespective of being dead or alive. From this meaninglessness, our characters are required to give their own lives significance and purpose, and this to me is R’s central struggle. His existentialist ennui was causing problems long before he met Julie. The opening chapters introduce readers to a highly deep and emotional zombie struggling to find meaning in an increasingly chaotic world. One central element of existentialist teaching is ‘existence precedes essence’ — the most effective way to live an authentic life is being an independently acting and responsible conscious being (existence), rather than following what stereotypes, labels, and preconceived notions an individual fits in to (essence).
“I want to change my punctuation. I long for exclamation marks, but I’m drowning in ellipses.”
As R fights for his right to be with Julie (Romeo and Juliet style), he throws away any preconceived notion of the typical zombie. The humans struggle to reconcile where the new line between ‘human’ and ‘not human’ falls and R tries to demonstrate to his zombie pals that there might be more to their existence than merely existing. It’s as beautiful and poetic as it is at times gruesome and uncomfortable, but Marion’s novel goes much deeper than the standard dystopian narrative and strikes at the heart of our humanity. Whether you choose to agree with the romantic element is hardly important; Marion’s central message is that connections can be formed between the most unlikely of pairs. And when a pair, both halves of which are disgruntled with and unfulfilled in their current stations, seeks to change the status quo, the results can be profound.
“I can feel it…the chance to start over, to live right, to love right, to burn up in a fiery cloud and never again be buried in the mud.”
Warm Bodies won’t be the most elegant novel you read all year. That said, I challenge you to find a dystopian novel that pushes your current understanding into completely unchartered territory. Infused with bleak and witty humour and a cast of memorable characters, Warm Bodies is not to be missed. Read it before you see it, if you can — certain crucial elements of the novel have been altered for the screen adaptation and could weaken the story significantly.