When you think of Zombie Lit the first thing that comes to mind usually isn’t “romance”, but if it is you’d be right on track with Isaac Marion‘s Warm Bodies. If you’ve seen the movie, then you’ll be familiar with the story because the movie was rather faithful to the book. Our protagonist is a male zombie named “R”, who lives with a hive of hundreds of other zombies in an airport. Having long forgotten anything about his pre-zombie existence, R spends his days aimlessly wandering around the airport and riding the escalators with his friend, “M.” The hive is led by “Boneys”, beings reduced to skeletons held together with connective tissue, who seem to be fueled by mystical powers. The Boneys are faster than zombies are and preside over weddings and other pseudo-religious services in the sanctuary they’ve constructed in the airport, wordlessly proclaiming all living things are destined to die. Boneys keep zombie society in order and place zombie children with adult zombie “parents” to learn how to kill. Zombies organize hunting parties to kill humans and bring back brains for those too weak to hunt. R explains zombies eat brains because it allows them to see the victim’s memories, allowing brief glimpses into what it’s like to be alive. I guess brains are the zombie version of acid or shrooms.
On one of these hunting expeditions, R is enjoying Perry Kelvin’s brains and seeing flashes of his life when he notices Perry’s girlfriend, Julie, cowering in the corner watching her comrades get eaten alive. Suddenly, R finds himself concerned for Julie and takes her back to the 747 he lives in to keep her safe. Julie freaks out at first, as anyone would if kidnapped by a zombie, but soon realizes R is different. He can string together more than a few words, refuses to hurt her, and even discusses music with her. R begins experiencing side effects of this friendship, such as having dreams, not being hungry for brains, and feeling joy, while Perry’s memories continue to assert themselves in R’s mind. Julie feels safe with R but longs to return home to the stadium-city sanctuary where her father is a leader of armed forces who hunt and kill zombies.
After R remains unconscious for a few days, as zombies are wont to do, Julie tries to escape and find food but ends up surrounded by zombies. R finds her, but not soon enough, as Boneys come by and threaten R and Julie, letting them know the only way Julie can stay is if she’s dead. R and Julie escape in the red Mercedes R has been learning to drive, and stay overnight in an abandoned house. Julie trusts R enough to let him stay in bed with her. The next day Julie leaves without warning. As R walks back to the airport, M and other zombies meet up with him to let him know they also feel changes happening within them. When R explains Julie has returned home, the zombies offer to help him find her so the couple’s friendship can continue to spark change. R, the changing zombies, Julie, and her friend Nora have to fight against the Boneys, Julie’s dad, and the remnants of human society in order to have a chance to end the plague that’s been destroying the world for at least a decade. Will they succeed?
I may have mentioned before that my heart is a cold barren wasteland after my lackluster experiences with dating and romance. I used to LOVE romance stories and movies, but lately they don’t do it for me. Imagine my surprise when I decided to watch Warm Bodies a few years ago and felt something. How the hell could a zombie romance make me feel something? Well, probably because the story goes deeper than your usual boy-meets-girl-but-her-parents-don’t-like-him tale. I mean, when the boy is a zombie who ate your boyfriend’s brains, he has to be pretty special to arouse romantic feelings in you. My love for the movie lead me to read the book and I was not disappointed.
As you start to read the book, you wonder if all zombies are this intellectual under all the grime and guttural moans. R’s advanced mental acumen outshines his paltry spoken vocabulary, and he wonders about the person he was before his “death”, what brought him to the airport, and what the future holds for him and his fellow zombies. Zombies are usually portrayed as brainless beings compelled solely by the need to eat brains, so reading from the perspective of a well spoken (or well thought, I guess) zombie was riveting on its own.
Marion’s portrayal of zombie culture as hierarchically and socially organized sets Warm Bodies aside from other Zombie Lit and entertainment. Zombie stories reflect fears people have of contemporary culture, whether it’s medical issues, societal breakdown, dependence on technology, or emergency preparedness. Warm Bodies seems to comment on the way leaders can influence followers. Inside the stadium, those in charge train the Living to regard zombies as the evil dead. Sure, they talk about doing some experimentation to find a cure, but their main objective is to obliterate all zombies. The Boneys have a similar message to their zombie followers: all humans are going to die anyway, why fight against it? The Boneys want to convert all the Living into the Living Dead because death is inevitable. The Living all listen to their superiors and train to kill zombies, then venture out in teams and do just that. The Boneys have adult zombies train young zombies in how to kill humans, and send them out in hunting groups to do just that.
The Living commanders are obviously less evil than the Boneys, but the comparison struck a chord in me, especially leading up to the 2016 election. The zombies and the general human populations both blindly follow their respective leaders because the leaders have the pulpit and the influence. It never occurs to them to question or go against leadership until R and Julie do so without even meaning to. In elections and in governments as a whole, people often blindly follow a candidate or a leader because the person says what they want to hear, and sometimes it can bring out the worst in people (cough, Trump, cough). People take advantage of fear and anger in this way, and it’s hinted that the zombie plague in Warm Bodies wasn’t brought on by a viral outbreak, but rather a fundamental shift in people’s desires towards evil.
Of course, I’m relating the book to current issues. Warm Bodies is obviously a Romeo and Juliet retelling, only with a slightly more reluctant Juliet. I also doubt Paris and Nurse slept together. While the names and general story line are Shakespearean, the material delves much deeper than the original. While Shakespeare explored family grudges, the morally corrupt practices of the upper class, and young, misguided love, Marion asks why humanity veers towards the dark side and how we can bring ourselves back into the light. You could also look at the book as a study of depression. When you have depression, you often feel like a zombie. Nothing elicits much of an emotional response from you, besides that ever-looming cloud of dread. The book seems to purport that love can cure all, but I also think it suggests that friendship and understanding can go a long way towards recovery.
Whether the main point of the book was to criticize sheeple mentality, the darkness and light in humanity, or battling against depression, we’re left not with a rainbow and sunshine ending, but rather a glance through slightly rosier glasses. R and Julie’s friendship helps them begin to heal their individual traumas and readjust their outlooks on existence. I would definitely read this again.
Rating: 5 out of 5 frozen Pad Thai meals
2016 POPSUGAR Reading Challenge Categories: A Book AND Its Prequel