The meaning of January and February, at least as it relates to new film releases, is "Who cares?" And nothing sends that message more effectively than yet another story of the undead. Well past the genre's innovation point of no return, the current trend in post-life action, horror, comedy and romance feels like a party that long ago stopped feeling fun and is now grasping for one more hit, grinding its teeth and sweating well after everyone else had the good sense to pack it up and go home. If you're as worn out by this as I am then you're not alone. Some redemption was needed and quickly.
So here it is, a sweet, smart, funny, knowing remix of zombie tropes, post-Twilight self-awareness, and youthful yearning for a vague past where, clearly, everything was better. It's a disarming jolt of February awesomeness and the only Valentine's Day movie you need to see.
From the moment Julie (Teresa Palmer -- think Kristen Stewart with a pulse) drops to one knee while machine-gunning some of his fellow zombies in a post-apocalyptic deathscape, "R" (he can't remember the rest of his pre-zombie name) is smitten. He's already not like the other zombies. He's kind of a loner and hides out in a long-grounded passenger plane surrounded by his collections of various scavenged items from the time before. He has a thoughts -- lots of them -- instead of mere brain-eating instinct. He can say a few words. He's trying to better himself and realizes, at some level, that Kim Kardashian on the cover of a leftover copy of US Weekly is somehow connected to the end of the old world. But when he rescues Julie from the zombie onslaught she's clearly going to lose, she's less than trusting. R did, after all, just eat the brains of her ex-boyfriend (Dave Franco).
Cue all sorts of awkward, socially inept, post-adolescent romance signifiers. Unable to speak, he plays her some good-taste cuts from his collection of vintage vinyl. "Sounds better," he says, "More alive." Julie's response: "But more trouble." They take Polaroids of one another. She mocks his hoodie and tendency toward shrugging. ("It's such a non-committal gesture.") She sparks a dormant heartbeat in him and his desire for her infects the other zombies with renewed humanity.
It's not all zom-com cuteness. Writer-director Jonathan Levine (50/50) loves the horror tension the undead don't muster much of anymore and he's found a way to cut through their competing, contemporary mythologies -- are they fast or slow? monsters or misunderstood? pathetic or terrifying? -- by mixing them up, picking what suits his purposes and renewing that element of the unknown.
Best of all, Levine even manages to upend youth movie/horror movie/fairy tale language by cleverly employing overused cliches in funny, unexpected moments. I won't tell you where. You'll know them when they pop up and, because they're in good hands and used properly, it'll all feel fresh and, yes, "more alive." Kind of like someone actually still cares.