In the last decade, left-of-center,"quirky" zombies have become so ubiquitous so as to reach critical mass. Just as many spoofs reach theaters as straight-ahead horror renditions. As with anything reaching its cultural saturation point, it’s the singer, not the song, and the results have been all over the spectrum, from the brilliant (“Shaun of the Dead”) to the forgettable (“Warm Bodies”). Despite significant talent both behind and in front of the camera, “Life After Beth” has trouble distinguishing itself. The film starts promisingly, opening with a foreboding shot of a girl wandering through Griffith Park, scored with ominous guitar squalls courtesy of Black Rebel Motorcycle Club, who composed the film’s score, setting the tone for a film much weirder and more interesting than the one that follows.
We learn that this girl was/is Beth (Aubrey Plaza), a high schooler who recently died in a hiking accident. Her boyfriend Zach (Dane DaHaan) is devastated and spends all of his time working through his grief with Beth’s parents (the always excellent John C. Reilly and Molly Shannon). One day they stop returning his calls, so a few days later he decides to drop by their house. It turns out that Beth is back and has no memory of the accident or any of the events occurring shortly before her death. Since her parents don’t quite know what to make of it but are thrilled over her inexplicable return, they decide to keep her confined to the house and aren't inclined to ask questions. After Zach uncovers their secret, he freaks out, assumes she’s a zombie, but quickly decides just to enjoy her company, logic be damned.
On the verge of a split weeks before she died, Zach tries to fix the parts of their broken relationship that Beth doesn't remember, but as days pass, she begins to exhibit peculiar behavior. Losing herself to fits of rage, Beth displays even more signs of short term memory loss and sustains sunburn that looks an awful lot like decomposition. Despite initially pegging her as a zombie, Zach ignores signs that his girlfriend may indeed be undead. Plaza is delightful herein, initially all sweetness and smiles, playing against her normally sarcastic type) before she becomes perpetually agitated. In a cast packed with scene stealers —Paul Reiser and Cheryl Hines co-star as Zach’s parents and Anna Kendrick shows up later as a friend of the family— she’s easily the best thing about the film.
A few recent films have done an admirable job of translating Plaza’s unique appeal (“The To Do List,” “Safety Not Guaranteed”) but oddly enough she seems most at home here. As Beth, we see her stretching in both directions, deadpanning (“What do you want from me, Zach? I’m a fucking zombie! Zombies eat guys”) and letting loose in scenes that have her covered in blood, punching through a wall and screaming “Motherfucker!” But Beth isn’t the only one visiting from beyond, and soon the town is overrun the decomposing.
But the film's problems begin to pile up. The mordant action doesn't get rolling until an hour in, and even then most of the carnage and bloodletting occurs off screen. DeHaan is a great young actor but he may be miscast as the lead here. The role of Zach was probably conceived as the straight-arrow center of an otherwise kinetic cast of players, but his character’s muddy motivations make him difficult to sympathize with. In a stroke of sitcom-ish storytelling, he doesn’t seem to understand why his parents would be averse to letting Beth go outside, vacillating from “She’s a zombie!” to “Let’s make out!” in about 2 minutes. Maybe the latter resolve could be chalked up to teenage hormones, but it still feels like a missed opportunity that the film never pauses long enough for him to consider the weight of her being mysteriously alive.
The feature-length debut of writer/director Jeff Baena (co-writer of David O. Russell’s oddball “I Heart Huckabees”), 'Life After Beth' can’t seem to decide if it wants to be a lark or if it wants to resonate, and wavers between both tones uneasily. The themes regarding dwelling on the past vs. moving on are likewise muddled. The film never allows the characters to wrestle with the ramifications of their deceased loved ones returning. Is it really them? If not, should we kill them? (For a great exploration of these themes, see the Sundance Channel series “The Returned”) Sure, ultimately, it’s a lightweight comedy, but the movie touches on these themes without quite following up in any meaningful way.
“Life After Beth” also never addresses why the dead are walking amongst the living in the first place, nor is it clear if they’re supposed to be a metaphor. Why do they suddenly snap and start eating people? We don’t really know, since the film doesn’t bother explaining its own logic, instead just standing on the shoulders of its predecessors as if to say, “It’s a zombie film, you get it,” which unfortunately amounts to lazy storytelling. Despite some worthwhile elements —a go-for-broke performance from Aubrey Plaza, a funny supporting turn by scene stealer Matthew Gray Gubler, a few laugh out loud moments, and a cool soundtrack (Can, Brian Jonestown Massacre, Neu!)— Baena’s debut just never really comes to life and unfortunately lacks the bite the best of the genre has to offer. [C+]
This is a reprint of our review from the 2014 Sundance Film Festival.