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Zombies hold mirror to us, director says


Any interview dealing with zombies must include the obligatory and, yes, relevant question: Do you feel a kinship with George A. Romero?

“I do feel a great debt to him, and I also feel like we are kind of following in his footsteps in some way,” Jonathan Levine, director-writer of “Warm Bodies,” said in a recent call from a Philadelphia publicity stop.

“The wonderful thing about Romero is he established the rules and created this amazing allegory in ‘Night of the Living Dead.’ And then proceeded to, first of all, vigilantly use the genre as a vehicle for social commentary, which we try to do to some small extent, and also continue to tweak his own rules.”

In the “Warm Bodies” novel, writer Isaac Marion uses an abandoned airport much as Romero did a suburban Pittsburgh shopping mall for “Dawn of the Dead.”

“It’s all holding up a mirror to us. I don’t know how he feels about the violation of rules – like the way we do it and the way ‘28 Days Later’ did it by introducing fast zombies and stuff like that. But I would think, just based on all his films and I’ve seen all of them now, that he would be open to it.”

Levine, who also directed “50/50,” cast Nicholas Hoult as the hero zombie known as R and Teresa Palmer as the human he rescues and falls for, to her initial fear, dismay and confusion.

She had auditioned for Levine’s second feature, “The Wackness,” with Ben Kingsley and Josh Peck, and he never forgot her. After Hoult was hired, she read with him.

“It was their chemistry, really, that inspired me to cast her. Her role is incredibly difficult because she’s acting opposite a guy who’s basically grunting the whole time. There’s a lot of responsibility on her to keep the scenes entertaining, and she had such effervescence and a soulful thing going on, that it was really a no-brainer.”

Based on her turn as Julie in “Warm Bodies” and her work in movies such as “I Am Number Four” and “Take Me Home Tonight,” she seems primed to break out, the director predicts.

The madcap song selection is a key part of the movie’s appeal.

In the book, the zombie called R is sketched as an old-fashioned guy. “He’s really into Frank Sinatra, he wears a suit and a tie, and part of my slight tweak in the conception of the character is I really wanted to have a young person to watch the movie and be like, that could be me,” the director said.

“So I wanted to keep him kind of semi-anonymous, in a way, but at the same time, obviously, his personality shines through. He feels things so intensely that it transcends the zombie plague. Even at the beginning, he clearly is kind of a diamond in the rough and I wanted to find music that could articulate that and was consistent with that notion.”

Levine looked at “the most bombastic, overwrought songs about feelings” he could find. “The ’80s were a great time for music like that. Power ballads, especially, like ‘Patience’ and ‘Missing You.’ ”

Given what he considers a John Hughes revisionist vibe to the movie, the 1980s further felt right.

“The music that he uses in his plane (doubling as his home) is meant to reflect a nostalgia for a bygone era,” Levine said. “It’s a way for him to communicate, but it also represents a yearning for something lost. So we got to use this great ’70s album rock, like ‘Hungry Heart’ from Bruce Springsteen.

“I’m unnaturally obsessed with Bruce Springsteen. I’ve seen him in concert almost a dozen times and have gone many different places to see him and, of course, Dylan is Bob Dylan,” and the lyrics of “Shelter From the Storm” proved beautiful and relevant.

Music supervisor Alex Patsavas helped to find songs by indie rockers such as Bon Iver and The National.

“When I was reading the book, I was like, wow, this is a great opportunity to put together an incredibly eclectic soundtrack where music engages in the dialogue with the audience. Music has always been a huge part of what I do, so one of the big selling points on doing this movie for me was the way Isaac used music to tell a story,” Levine said.