By Isaac Marion
Vintage Books: 2010
5 / 5 zedheads
I never expected to discover an inspiring tale about the strength of the human spirit in the story of a brain-eating corpse.
Warm Bodies, the first novel by Isaac Marion, is an impressive debut by any measure. Marion blends the zombie horror genre with the conventions of a genuine love story to create a story that is sweet, sad, and sometimes sick, as dictated by the zombie genre. I found Warm Bodies to be equally engrossing as it was gross. Warm Bodies is also an unexpectedly heartfelt and funny tale about the importance of love and the necessity of dreams. As cliche as it is to say, "I couldn't put it down," it's true; I consumed Warm Bodies like a zombie consumes a hot steaming brain.
In the story, 'R' is an unlikely hero. First of all, he's dead. Second of all, he's a zombie with a hunger for human flesh and brains. He has no memories of his past life and knows nothing of his name save for the first letter. While humanity struggles for survival in walled-off strongholds, the undead "live" amongst the ruins of civilization, such as the old airport where R spends his days aimlessly riding the escalators up and down or staring off into space for hours at a time. But R is special. Unlike other zombies, who shamble aimlessly through their dreary un-lives, R can still speak. He's starting to form thoughts. Ideas. Hopes. He doesn't just pick through the remains of civilization and act out old routines like the other zombies who are operating on some kind of fuzzy instinct. Something in R is compelling him to change and re-discover his humanity.
While participating in a zombie attack on a group of human survivors, R meets Julie, a living girl. Amidst the gore, carnage, and thoughtless gorging, Julie inflames R's nascent senses. For reasons beyond his understanding, R is compelled to rescue Julie from the zombie attack. She's a beating warmth in his otherwise cold and empty existence, but for once R doesn't want to consume that warmth like so many other people he's killed. Instead, he wants to bask in that warmth. An awkward but sweet relationship begins to develop between R and Julie. Every day together, R resurrects some of his lost humanity, bringing him closer and closer to a momentous transformation that will change everything people thought they knew about the undead.
Refreshingly, Warm Bodies is not a Twilight-style love story. It's doesn't play to half-baked concepts of tween romance while marginalizing the monstrous nature of its heroes. Instead, Isaac Marion's novel is a mature, albeit optimistic, take on love that doesn't shy away from the brutality and horror of zombies. R is a monster. He kills people and eats their flesh and brains because zombies are driven to replace the missing life within them by consuming the life of others. At the same time, he's a sympathetic monster not so different from you or I. He's sad and lost, and he does what he does out of instinct, not malice. Despite his sympathetic qualities, which grow more apparent as his humanity returns, he's still a compromised romantic lead. When he meets Julie for the first time, one of the reasons he's drawn to her so intensely is that he just recently ate her boyfriend's brains and assimilated all his memories and feelings. How's that for a first date faux-pas? Somehow, despite the fact that R killed Julie's boyfriend, and despite the fact that R is literally a rotten corpse, Marion manages to make the relationship between R and Julie feel very sincere and genuinely loving.
I was also very intrigued by the zombie society that Marion describes. While the dead are mostly mindless, they form an empty parody of human civilization, re-enacting aspects of human life like Church, marriage, sex, and parenthood, but all very listlessly. The zombies are presided over by a hierarchy of old and twisted zombies called the Boneys who wordlessly enforce a standard of existence that R throws into chaos by refusing to eat Julie. Meanwhile, back in the human settlements, the older generation is clinging to outdated and stifling concepts of survival. In both ways, Warm Bodies makes a statement about the importance of youth, vitality, and fresh-thinking.
Warm Bodies is a wonderful book. For those hard-liners who scoff at the concept of compassionate zombies, let alone a zombie love story, Warm Bodies proves that the fusion can be immensely successful. Warm Bodies is a funny, touching, horrific, and tender reading experience that is a welcome addition to the glut of bleak, nihilistic zombie books already in circulation. If you like films such as Fido or Day of the Dead, I strongly encourage you to read Warm Bodies.