Where there's life there's hope, and even where there isn't, love offers the promise of a new beginning for slacker zombie R, played by Nicholas Hoult. In a truly deadpan romantic comedy, he pulls off the difficult task of drawing us into his world with pupils fixed and dilated, though his gaze turns noticeably misty after clapping eyes on living blonde Julie (Teresa Palmer).
Zombie purists will take issue with every twist of the plot, beginning with the idea that R (because that's all he can remember of his name post-apocalypse) is "conflicted" about the imperative to eat human flesh. They'll scoff, too, at his capacity for coherent thought. But it's just as well for this comedy, because it means Hoult gets to deliver a wickedly dry voiceover.
Outside of his head, though, R can only manage some guttural moaning and that, together with his floppy posture and creepy stare, means he struggles to impress Julie. It's while out in the broken-down city hunting with the pack that he's struck by her beauty, then a mouthful of brains belonging to her boyfriend Perry (Dave Franco) fills him with rosy-hued memories, spurring him to save her from the carnage.
Julie doesn't hold much of a grudge against R for sucking poor old Perry's skull out and that doesn't really sit well with the unfolding romance, which has a sweetly mischievous feel rather than being too cynical. She blocks it out for the first part of their unusual courtship, which is spent holed up in a plane at a derelict airport, listening to R's record collection (vinyl, because it sounds "more alive").
Inevitably, the other undeads soon get a sniff of Julie, and R moves faster than usual as they're chased out into no man's land. She aims to get back to a walled-in section of downtown where her dad General Grigio (John Malkovich, frothing at the mouth) presides over the last remaining mortals. R is conflicted about this too, because Julie makes his heart beat and he's started to dream again.
Working from Isaac Marion's novel, writer-director Jonathan Levine (who saw the funny side of cancer in 50/50) bends the rules to make the story work and softens the violence, too, but it's still a witty reinvention of the genre like Shaun of the Dead before it, drawing parallels between the apathy of youth and the zombie masses. Initially, R feels dead inside, disconnected from the world, and grunts, groans and shrugs a lot...
Slowly but surely he begins to find his words and infiltrates the city stronghold to tell Julie the good news: that, together, they've sparked a chain reaction that is bringing the walking dead back to life. But he risks a bullet to the head from Grigio's army and he's also being pursued by the 'bonies' (zombies in an advanced stage of decomposition, who are apparently very bitter about it).
The resulting action scenes get the adrenaline pumping, though they do slightly tip the balance in what is, essentially, an intimate tale of a young dropout who wakes up and dares to dream of a future. And while Julie isn't the best source of inspiration (given her numbed reaction to Perry's death), Palmer and Hoult do bounce well off each other in a comedy that moves, despite the rigour mortis.