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Who ever thought of a zombie with a conscience? Isaac Marion, apparently. The author was having a rough go of it in his late twenties, "struggling with depression and feeling disconnected from life [and] in a lot of ways, didn't really know who I was or why I was here," he tells SYFY WIRE over email. In other words, he felt like a member of the undead, shambling through life without much purpose.
"I had been tinkering with a story about a 'day in the life' of a zombie, imagining what they might be thinking behind their blank stares and mindless routines of consumption, and it hit me how much I could relate," Marion explains. "I decided to use that very silly premise to explore my own existential crisis and imagine how I might crawl out of it."
The end result was a subversive zombie tale called Warm Bodies, published by Zola Books in October 2010. Told from the perspective of a brain-munching ghoul named "R" (after all, he can't much remember his name before he turned), the novel explores the question of "What makes a human being...well, a human being?" After chewing on the gray matter of a survivor, the already guilt-ridden R slowly begins to regain his grasp on the heart-pumping experience that is mortality and finds himself falling for the victim's girlfriend, Julie.
Marion's warm-hearted twist on a genre generally defined by its necrotic nihilism ultimately captured the attention of Hollywood, which adapted the book into a feature film — now streaming on Peacock — starring Nicholas Hoult (The Menu) as R and Teresa Palmer (Triple 9) as Julie.
"I'd been writing in total obscurity for about 15 years at that point, getting rejected by every publisher and short story magazine — no progress whatsoever — and then this movie just happened out of nowhere in a very short span of time," states Marion, who got to spend a memorable week on set, watching the production come together.
"It was beyond surreal to see all these high-level professionals running around like, 'We need R over here, we need a gun for Julie,' talking about my characters like they were real and spending millions of dollars to bring MY little story to life. And then the whole wild ride when the movie came out and I got to experience MATTERING for a moment! It was profound."
Jonathan Levine was the perfect choice to direct the project, given that his previous two features (The Wackness and 50/50) were intimate dramas spanning the gamut of human emotions.
"[He] used a more artistic style than a lot of the more generic YA movies that were hot at the time The music and mood of it all, and how they managed to evoke a convincing post-apocalyptic world on such a low budget," Marion continues. "I know Jonathan was trying to make a movie with a distinct personality at a time when everyone wanted 'the next Twilight,' and I think it got lumped in with a lot of mediocre media from that era. When you look at the reviews for both the book and the movie, you see a lot of surprise, 'This was not at all what I expected!' I would love for them both to get a second look with that pop culture baggage removed."
When we asked about his favorite part of the adaptation, Marion points to Nicholas Hoult, who, at the time, was still an up-and-coming young actor with a bright future ahead of him (this was only two years after his turn as Hank McCoy in X-Men: First Class). Hoult is all set to turn another monster mainstay, vampires, on their head this spring with the release of Universal Pictures' Renfield.
"I was worried that whoever played R would camp it up and turn the whole thing into a joke," the author recalls. "Finding the right balance for that character, performing 'zombie dialogue' in a way that feels poignant instead of silly...everything really hinged on that. I was so relieved when I saw that Nick understood the character and had the necessary soul to make him lovable."
Warm Bodies opened in theaters exactly one decade ago on Feb. 1, 2013, to positive critical reception (it currently holds a score of 81 percent on Rotten Tomatoes). Its box office performance wasn't too shabby either, exhuming $116 million against a budget of $35 million. While Marion published two sequels and one prequel novella, Lionsgate never turned the property into a full-on film franchise.
"There was a time when it seemed like a sure thing, contracts were drawn up, etc., but for some reason, it keeps sliding around," Marion admits. "Talks of a movie sequel morphed into a TV series, which was actually announced as 'in development' a couple of years ago, only to mysteriously go silent. I'm only peripherally involved at this point, so I don't actually know what's going on behind the scenes. It's all a big tease for me. But they did option all four books for TV, so it's still possible. To me, Warm Bodies is just the opening act of the story —it's actually 18 percent of the total word count — so it would be a dream to see the rest of it on screen someday."
In the decade since the movie's release, Marion has retreated to a domicile out in the woods. And that's not some euphemism, by the way — he really lives out in nature, writing novels, music, and poetry. "A lot can happen in 10 years and I am pretty damn far from Hollywood!" he concludes. "I hope the anniversary buzz nudges people to check out the other three books in the series and maybe consider joining my Patreon, where you can watch my daily struggle to carve out an existence in a shed in the wilderness!"
Warm Bodies is now streaming on Peacock. If you're looking for even more zombified content, then be sure to check out George A. Romero's Night of the Living Dead or the SYFY original series, Day of the Dead.