It takes a bright mind to bring new life to the zombie film these days, and even more so for the sub-genre of romantic zombie horror/comedies. Not because the subject matter is extremely difficult or anything; there just happens to be a dearth of bright minds behind the endless stream of undead-centered movies churned out on a yearly basis. While it has its share of tonal problems, Jeff Baena’s directorial debut, Life After Beth, stands far above the middle ground with exuberant performances from a star-studded cast and a sincerely bizarre sense of humor.
Baena, who co-wrote David O. Russell’s I Heart Huckabees, also wrote the screenplay for Life After Beth, which hones in on one particular instance of the dead rising, set on the outskirts of a larger outbreak. After a lovely opening that gives audiences their only peek into Aubrey Plaza’s Beth while she’s properly alive, the film settles in on Zach (Dane DeHaan), a young man anxiously grieving over Beth’s death-by-snakebite. Unable to find closure for a relationship that was in mid-turmoil, Zach pals up to Beth’s parents, Maury and Geenie, played with gleefully unhinged paranoia by John C. Reilly and Molly Shannon. But that friendship takes a strong left turn once he makes a certain discovery.
Beth is alive again! Or still! And her parents want to keep that a secret from everyone. Beth has no recollection of her death, and her symptoms include further memory problems, mood swings, and an increasingly gnarly physical presence. Nearly zero exposition goes into Beth’s new zombified state, which is refreshing but also suspect, as no one really asks the surrogate audience question of, “What the hell is going on?” But I didn’t let it bother me, choosing to ride out the erratic waves of comedy and drama without thinking too hard.
Zach is overjoyed at having his girlfriend back, particularly because she doesn’t remember their final days together. All he wants to do is tell her the things he never got to say. In some respects, the first half of Life After Beth is one of the more relatable romances put to film in recent years. Things do get rather haywire once Beth’s cannibalistic nature starts taking over, and the story veers towards average zombie-movie tropes in the third act. Still, by sticking with its main characters and avoiding the ground zero of the zombie crisis, Baena won me over.
When it comes to the laughs over the romance, Life After Beth loses some of its surefootedness, bouncing from broad slapstick to situational comedy to visceral physical humor. And all without having any actual “jokes” in it, which was weird. For me, most of that worked in the film’s favor, keeping me on my toes, but I can understand how it might fall flat with others. Still, know that “Zach-erdoodle-doo” is one of the best lines in the movie, and the way Zach resolves the situation offers up one of the most visually pleasing payoffs you could hope for. I was clapping before I even realized it.
Everyone in this cast is on their A-game, though DeHaan’s overstated energy made it seem like he was told to base his performance on Spanish soap operas. Plaza is a treat as she shifts from cutesy girlfriend to dull-eyed drone, really letting loose once her hunger kicks in. (If there was an award for Best Performance While Strapped to a Stove, she would win it hands down.) Reilly and Shannon are perfectly warped as two parents longing for a past in which they were neglectful. Zach’s parents are played by an underused Cheryl Hines and Paul Reiser, though Matthew Gray Gubler turns in a memorable performance as Zach’s prim and overly aggressive brother Kyle. Anna Kendrick pops by as a flirty old classmate of Zach’s who gets thrown into the mess, and Plaza’s Parks and Recreation co-star Jim O’Heir appears briefly as a newly arisen mailman.
While his screenwriting’s mileage varies, I found Baena’s direction to be solid throughout, even if none of the sequences outside of the climax are particularly memorable. There was an indie energy behind the camerawork, which never got too shaky, and there is always something relevant or interesting happening onscreen. Whether it’s bigger moments like people walking away from flaming structures or smaller details like Beth’s attic project or men standing around in their underwear, Life of Beth never feels like Baena took the wrong step in how he chose to tell this story visually.
Hitting theaters this past Friday, Life After Beth is a film much more suited to home viewing on VOD or Blu-ray/DVD, where its low-budget charms can live on outside of big-screen expectations. That said, it makes one wonder why Aubrey Plaza hasn’t yet catapulted to Hollywood’s elite the way Chris Pratt has. Maybe Marvel should come knocking on her door…just not for any Marvel Zombies movies, please.