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Sundance Review: Zombie Rom Com 'Life After Beth' Starring Aubrey Plaza & Dane DeHaan

by Cory Everett
January 21, 2014 10:21 AM
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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+]

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  • Jabalong | January 22, 2014 6:18 PMReply

    That the reviewer thought the engaging and funny Warm Bodies was "forgettable" makes me skeptical of his view of this one.

  • Wulfenstraat | January 24, 2014 2:46 PM

    Why are there so many zombie movies, television shows and video games nowadays? Is there such thing as a Zombie Epidemic? Yet, for something that doesn’t exist, zombies scare the living hell out of us, as if there were truth in what we see. In fact, these “entertainments” are proliferating at an unbelievable rate. Why? What is it that our “social subconsciousness” is trying to reveal to us...without actually putting it into words? What is it that we are being warned against?

    Juxtapose this scene from the Bible to what you’ve seen in every zombie entertainment. You know the scene well, because you were warned as a child. The tormented populace of Sodom come to Lot’s home, banging on his door like the living dead, needing the pure life of another straight man or woman to revitalize the moral decay at the base of their disease. Such was Sodom in its day; such is America today. It’s a fever in their blood, like the zombies you’ve been warned about. Dare to look beyond their the living dead. Your gay sons and daughters need the flesh of the living to feel alive.

    Homosexuality is a contagion, and you have to stop it...sooner than later. Every morally healthy person is an indictment against the corrupted values of these creatures, who have been touched by this disease. As a consequence, the afflicted cannot abide seeing anyone live Life as it was meant to be, with each of these grotesques committed to destroying the moral alternative to their depraved reality. Are they born with the gene? Or, are they afflicted with this abominable disease? In other words, can the emotionally weak be turned with a love-bite on the neck?

    While seeming to be flighty and gay, these living dead detest what they’ve become, since they are condemned to lurk in the shadows of Life, always on the prowl for fresh meat. And, at every instance, they devour the humanity in those who are unfortunate enough to fall prey to their predations. And then, overnight, a new grotesque is born with the same sick imperative to prey on some other poor unfortunate. Yes, we still love them, despite their new perversion. Yes, we protect them in their affliction. Yes, we cast our votes in support of gay rights. But should we? They’re caricatures of real Life...of Death itself.

    This is why there are so many zombie movies, television shows and video games nowadays. Because there is such a thing as a Zombie Epidemic. Zombies scare the living hell out of you, as they should, because it is the truth behind the lie that you see and hear in the death shrouds of America. This is why these “entertainments” are proliferating at an unbelievable rate, because the contagion is spreading. This is what the world’s “social subconsciousness” is trying to reveal to you in your dream world of political correctness. This is what you are now being warned against...because:

    You are living in a Zombie Epidemic! It is raging all around you! And only you can stop it!

  • doucheradar | January 21, 2014 5:33 PMReply

    Some of the specifics about the other zombies are never divulged because the movie has nothing to do with them. That's why all the zombie action just so happens to occur in the background, which was a conscious, informed approach made by the filmmaker from day 1 to avoid any overshadowing of the true meaning of this movie: The relationship between Beth and Zack and his second chance at love with her. This reviewer didn't really "get" this film.

  • Chapo | April 15, 2014 4:51 PM

    I saw this a few weeks ago at a screening and must disagree wholeheartedly with the review. Tonally the picture is fantastic. It is touching and funny and insane and does things I've never seen before. The score is kick ass by BMRC and it looks hella more expensive than the $2,000,000 or so it cost to make. Plaza is ridiculously good and maybe the best she's ever done and Dehan is actually likable for the first time ever for me. I don't want to ruin the end but it was seriously one of this most inspired gags I've seen in years. Def check this out and don't let the sour review misguide you.

  • Tyler | January 21, 2014 5:44 PM

    nawwww he was spot on. It was a really messy film with a few notable moments.

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