The portrait of a zombie as a young man
One night, after watching an episode of Frank Darabont’s Walking Dead, I dreamt that my daughter had been bitten. Her infection was only partial—and included a predilection to nip at her siblings—but we were determined to keep her alive, find a cure, keep her soul intact.
The zombie threat is an idea that won’t go away—a monster who not only eats our flesh but robs us of our character, our brains, our essence. Worse than the death of the body is the thievery of the soul, leaving behind a morally bankrupt shell governed by our basest instict—the need to feed.
Zombie stories also offer that most satisfying plot device—good battling pure evil. The genre first served as a catalyst to get teenage girls to snuggle in close to their dates and continued as a way to guiltlessly enjoy bloody headshots, since nobody feels sorry for zombies. But as the original Walking Dead graphic novel explored beyond the zombie threat to the post-apocalyptic humanity left in its wake, Isaac Morion’s new novel Warm Bodies—already slated for a Summit Entertainment film adaptation—takes it a step further, getting inside the brains of a zombie.
Of course, if R, the book’s zombie protagonist, were a typical mindless drone, that would make for a twisted and monosyllabic read. Fortunately, our narrator has more going on in his undead brain than his limited grunts and moans.
His journey begins with no memory, no morality, only a hunger for the flesh of survivors and the rare feelings that come as he feeds on the energy, emotion and memory trapped inside that zombie delicacy, the human brain. But a particular meal, the mind of a once-idealist, now cynical young man named Perry, awakens something within R. He makes the first moral choice of his undeath and saves Perry’s girlfriend Julie.
Marion explores the meaning of humanity through R’s journey towards personhood, a tale that gets grander in scale as his empathy builds and the book’s true villains—cynicism, apathy and status quo—are revealed. His apocalyptic landscape includes a stadium-turned-refugee-camp, where order, diligence and industry have sucked most of the life out of the living. Julie yearns for more, collecting priceless works of art that are worthless to her military father. And R finds solace in Frank Sinatra and the Beatles. Together the strange couple battles enemies on both sides for hope in a hopeless world.
Marion’s characters are far from perfect. Their flaws give them a realness and depth that have the reader caring deeply despite the book’s brevity. Warm Bodies’ zombie tropes—moaning hordes of the undead, brain-eating, and zombies getting blown to bits—are almost incidental. This is one zombie story that won’t give you nightmares. It leaves you instead pondering that thing called life and cheering for a monster.