Warm Bodies is the first movie worth paying to see in theaters this year. It’s an inventive charmer that visits all the typical movie scenarios of young love amid chaos and disaster, but with a new dimension: one of the romantic leads is a zombie. There are so many clever lines and bits of physical comedy worth revisiting that the movie seems like a likely cult classic, but it’s more inclusive than that. Even someone who has let The Walking Dead pass them by could fall for these brain-eaters.
The main character’s interior monologue, a deadpan account of life as a zombie, wins you over from the start. “Why can’t I connect with people?” R (Nicholas Hoult) wonders. R knows his name was longer, but he forgot the rest of it. He doesn’t know what he did, pre-apocalypse; “My hoodie would suggest I was unemployed,” he guesses. He hangs out (lives isn’t the right word) at a deserted airport with a crew of other zombies. The newer ones retain an ability to grunt at each other; occasionally R and his best friend, M (Rob Corddry, who makes a disconcertingly adorable zombie), may exchange a word or two. It’s usually “eat.”
‘This is a typical day for me,” R tells us at the beginning of what will prove to not be a typical day at all. “I shuffle around.” Hoult walks hunched over, with his head cocked to the side. The posture is pure zombie, but when he encounters and falls for a human survivalist Julie (Teresa Palmer) his careful, heavy way of moving also suggests another monster we came to love, Boris Karloff’s Frankenstein. He and Julie have the strangest meet-cute ever; seconds after their eyes lock for the first time, he’s eating her boyfriend’s brains. But he saves her—there’s a trick involving smearing her with blood to mask her human smell—and spirits her away to his lair in an abandoned airplane. R wants to learn to feel again; eating fresh brains allows the zombies to briefly experience the memories of the newly dead, so from gobbling up Julie’s boyfriend, he already knows what it might be like to kiss her. And you’ve never seen a boy so intent on not scaring away the girl of his dreams. “Don’t be creepy,” R reminds himself, as if he could help it.
There are so many pop-culture inspirations and references here it’s hard to keep track of all of them. At one point, Julie and her best friend, Nora (the excellent Analeigh Tipton), embark on a zombie makeover and Nora puts on the song “Pretty Woman.” “What? It’s funny!” Nora protests when Julie shoots her a dirty look. There’s a convertible ride straight out of Ferris Bueller’s Day Off. And Bob Dylan’s “Shelter from the Storm” takes on new meaning when played in a post-plague America by a zombie hoping to get somewhere with a human girl.
(READ: TIME’s review of Warm Bodies director Jonathan Levine’s 50/50)
Falling in love has an interesting, humanizing effect on R, which could have bigger ramifications. But complications ensue; of course Julie would be the daughter of the self-appointed general (John Malkovich) of a militia trying to exterminate the zombies. The post-apocalyptic world also has villains even more animalistic than the simple zombies — skeletal creatures they all call the Boneys, which are what emerge when the last shreds of humanity are gone from the zombies. Yes, the idea of the undead brain-eaters still having humanity is incongruous, but the movie sweeps you into this fantasy on top of fantasy until the zombie logic hardly matters. As for the dwindling humor in the last 20 minutes or the too-neat ending? Easy enough to overlook when the movie has already gotten you high.
Warm Bodies was directed by Jonathan Levine, whose last love story, 50/50, also dealt with romance and mortality simultaneously, although in a much more conventional way. Levine also wrote the screenplay, adapting Isaac Marion’s 2011 bestseller of the same name. The story and the writing are both very clever—the impulse to pepper a review with quotes from R’s interior monologue speaks to how enticing it is—but the joy of the movie rests on the stars’ performances. Palmer is reminiscent of Kristen Stewart (but way more sunny), and previously played one of the supernatural-gifted teens in the unfortunate I Am Number Four (2011). She also had a small part in the nearly-as-dreadful The Sorcerer’s Apprentice (2010), exuding a notable energy, but otherwise, had little chance to impress. In Warm Bodies she gets to be brave and funny—and she gets to make flirting with a zombie seem feasible.
(READ: TIME’S pan of a 2008 Adam Sandler movie in which the only thing Richard Corliss liked was Teresa Palmer.)
Palmer has a lot of help from Hoult’s offbeat charisma. Remember About a Boy? He was the boy, the kid who wasn’t winsome—his mouth tended to hang open, a little like R’s—yet who won over Hugh Grant anyway. Hoult was also in X-Men: First Class and played a student with a crush on Colin Firth in A Single Man, but weirdly, being trapped inside an inexpressive zombie’s body is the role that shows his fullest range. You’d hate to see Warm Bodies stripped of his voiceover, but Hoult gets laughs even when he’s playing R as practically a silent-film character. There’s a scene where Julie and R hole up in an abandoned suburb. Levine cuts to Hoult sitting on a sofa reading an old copy of Us Weekly with a Kardashian on the cover. “Kim’s Birthday Plans” the headline reads, and Hoult’s expression, that of a man with a concussion trying to get his bearings in a very challenging world, says it all.
(WATCH: The trailer for Hoult’s next movie, Jack the Giant Slayer.)