In the last decade, left-of-center zombies have become so ubiquitous that we’re bordering on critical mass, with as many spoofs being released as straight-ahead horror renditions. As with anything reaching its cultural saturation point, it’s the singer, not the song, as the results have been all over the spectrum, from the brilliant (“Shaun of the Dead”) to the forgettable (“Warm Bodies”). Despite some fine talent both behind and in front of the camera, “Life After Beth” has trouble distinguishing itself from the army of flesh-eating peers. 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 compose the film’s atmospheric score. As brief an introduction as it may be, it sets the tone for a film much weirder and more interesting than the one that follows.
We then learn that this girl was Beth (Aubrey Plaza), a high schooler who died shortly thereafter 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 to see what’s up. It turns out that Beth is back and has no memory of the accident or any of the events that occurred shortly before her death. Since her parents don’t quite know what to make of it, but thrilled over her inexplicable return, they decide to keep her confined to the house and are just generally happy to play dumb about its larger implications. After Zach uncovers their secret, initially he freaks out, assumes she’s a zombie, but quickly decides just to enjoy her company again, 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 has no memory of, but as days pass, she begins to she exhibit peculiar behavior. Losing herself to fits of rage, Beth displays even more signs of short term memory loss and carries a sun burn that looks an awful lot like decomposition. Despite having initially pegged her as a zombie, Zach seems to now be ignoring all these signs that his girlfriend may indeed be undead. Plaza is a welcome presence in the film, initially all sweetness and smiles (and very against her normally sarcastic type), but eventually becoming all piqued, all the time. In a cast packed with scene stealers -- Paul Reiser and Cheryl Hines also 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 vehicles have done an admirable job of translating Plaza’s unique appeal to the big screen (“The To Do List,” “Safety Not Guaranteed”) but oddly enough, she seems the 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!” (and yes, it’s as great as it sounds). But Beth isn’t the only one that starts to return and soon the town is overrun with more former loved ones back from the dead.
Elsewhere in the film, the problems begin to pile up. Things don’t really get rolling until an hour in, and even then, most of the carnage and bloodletting happen 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 center of an otherwise crazy cast of players but the 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 and goes from “She’s a zombie!” to “Let’s make out!” in about 2 minutes. Maybe the latter part 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 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 about 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? What are the ramifications? (For a great exploration of these themes, see the Sundance Channel series “The Returned”). Sure, ultimately, it’s a lightweight comedy, but the movie does put these ideas out there vaguely, but never quite follows-up in any meaningful way.
“Life After Beth” also never addresses why they’re back in the first place nor is it clear if they’re supposed to be a metaphor for something. Why do they suddenly snap and start eating people? We don’t really know because 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+]