By Oliver Lyttelton | www.oliverlyttelton.com January 29, 2013 at 1:05PM
Think that "Warm Bodies" is the first film to tackle the teen/romance/comedy/zombie sweet spot? Think again, because two decades ago, "My Boyfriend's Back" got there first. Though one can only hope that "Warm Bodies" does so more successfully. Produced by Disney subsidiary Touchstone and "Friday The 13th" creator Sean S. Cunningham, and directed in a half-heartedly Tim Burton-aping style by Christopher Guest regular Bob Balaban (who'd had more success with the horror-comedy genre four years earlier with "Parents"), the film centers on world's-oldest-high-schooler Johnny Dingle (Andrew Lowery, barely heard of before or since), who's been obsessed to a near psychotic degree (something that's presumably intended as endearing by the filmmakers) with classmate Missy (Traci Lind, of "Fright Night II" "fame"). Johnny engineers a fake robbery at her convenience store in order to be a hero and win her heart, only to be killed in an actual heist conveniently taking place at the same time. But he's swiftly resurrected as a zombie, only to discover that he has to eat human flesh in order to stop his body from falling apart. You can sort of see what Balaban's going for -- there's quite a funny matter-of-fact tone to some of the scenes (thanks principally to stage veteran Austin Pendleton as the local doctor, and Edward Herrmann and Mary Beth Hurt as his parents, who kidnap a child to feed to their son), and comic-book interstitials point to a fun romance/EC comics hybrid tone. But the film can never quite live up to that, thanks to an ill-conceived, mostly unfunny script, a tenor that can't decide if it's absurd pitch-black humor or teen romance, and some disastrous miscasting with the leads -- Lowery's mostly charisma-free, and Lind never makes the case that her character's worth returning from the grave for. These days, it's worth watching only for early screen roles from Matthew Fox, Philip Seymour Hoffman and Matthew McConaughey (Renee Zellwegger also was cast, but her scenes were left on the cutting room floor). Fingers crossed, "Warm Bodies" will stand the test of time somewhat better.
Another attempt at giving a Burton-esque suburban comedy spin to the zombie genre, Andrew Currie's "Fido" wasn't seen by many (it proved a hit on the festival circuit, but only got a tiny release the following year), overshadowed by the higher-profile likes of "Shaun of the Dead" and "Land Of the Dead," but stands up a few years later as a witty, original and curiously touching spin on the genre. Set in a "Pleasantville"-style alternative 1950s where radiation from space has caused the dead to be resurrected, resulting in a long and brutal war, the film centers on an ordinary suburban family (Dylan Baker, Carrie-Anne Moss and K'Sun Ray), the Robinsons. Zombies can now be tamed and used as household servants thanks to electronic collars, and despite her husband, a zombie-loathing veteran of the wars, Mrs. Robinson (Moss) buys one, Fido (Billy Connolly), in order to keep up with the neighbors. But when his collar malfunctions, Fido, who's become a sort of surrogate father to young Timmy Robinson, eats the neighbor, starting off a trail of cover ups and further brain-chewing. Debut director Currie over-eggs the style a little, occasionally veering towards wackiness when a more deadpan approach often feels more effective (one perhaps senses that his script might have flourished in other hands). But it's still an original and detailed bit of world building, looking impressive for a relatively low-budget film, and the cast (bar the slightly bland Ray) put in terrific work, making sure to flesh out their characters well beyond caricature; Connolly adds a lovely sense of melancholy, Moss is both touching and a little demented, Baker is a curiously relatable repressed father, Henry Czerny plays an excellent company man villain, and Tim Blake Nelson walks away with the film as a neighbor with a zombie bride. The film's never uproariously funny, and doesn't come anywhere close to being scary, but it's thoroughly enjoyable, and even a little moving by the end.
On the evidence of "Fido" and "Pontypool," which followed two years later, maybe we should leave the zombie genre to the Canadians, who consistently seem to be finding new spins on the well-trodden archetype. From cult Canadian filmmaker Bruce McDonald, and based on a novel by Tony Burgess called "Pontypool Changes Everything," the film manages to find a couple of twists on the tired set-up, even appropriating and giving new life to the conceit of a virus causing zombification, as popularized by "28 Days Later" and "Resident Evil," among others. The film's set almost entirely in the radio studio in which DJ Grant Mazzy (character actor Stephen McHattie, of "A History Of Violence" and "Watchmen," among others) is broadcasting his morning show. He's already had a strange encounter with a woman on the way to work, but as the morning proceeds, he and colleagues Laurel-Ann (Georgina Reilly) and Sydney (Lisa Houle) discover that people are turning into vicious zombie-like creatures, and it's spreading fast. It's down to a virus, but a China Mieville-ish linguistic one, which is infecting particular words in the English language. It's a fascinating conceit, one handled with an original and tense sense of terror by McDonald, even if it feels a little stagey in places (it was written simultaneously as a "War of the Worlds"-style radio play, which would be fascinating to hear). And McHattie delivers a mighty and characterful performance that suggests he deserves to be front-and-center more often. There are moments of contrivance, and it dips into genre convention in places, but for the most part, it's an atypically smart and intense take on the zombie genre that deserves a bigger audience.
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