EIFF 2014: Life After Beth review

A brilliant cast and a new take on zombies raise this indie comedy-horror above the rest. Here's Andrew's review...

It feels like it’s been a while since we had a new zombie metaphor. World War Z, while venturing into new territory with its 12A global apocalypse did new things, but its zombies were not being used to represent anything other than an immediate and literal threat to human life on earth. There have been a few films at this festival about destructive male behaviour, and this is the most fun one, with emotional turmoil rendered physically and chaotically as a zombie outbreak.

So, while it’s not as successful a horror film as Shaun of the Dead, for a zom-rom-com Life After Beth manages to make itself distinct. It isn’t trying to scare you, and so zombie purists should note that it isn’t a classic zombie film in that respect. Instead, it does have some great comedic moments, especially regarding American suburbia, and some genuinely effective pathos.

It is though, like Shaun, a slow-burner, taking its time to establish the normality before contrasting it with the zombie attacks. Zach (Dane DeHaan) is mourning his girlfriend’s death by wearing dark clothing and sitting by the pool, smoking. His parents are unable to reach out to him, and his brother is the kind of person who finds no irony in Mark Millar comics (Red Dwarf fans: he’s not dissimilar to Rimmer, but with access to guns).

Finding empathy and friendliness with Beth’s parents (John C. Reilly and Mollie Shannon) that he doesn’t have at home, Zach starts to open up, only for things to be complicated when he glimpses Beth (Aubrey Plaza) alive and well, and uses this miracle as an opportunity to tell her all the things he wished he’d said before. From this initial happiness, things start going downhill.

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There’s a suspicion that writer/director Jeff Baena has decided to go for the Looper approach, and has a detailed explanation for the undead in his head, or in a Bible, but has elected not to put that on screen. This is magical realism, not a Christopher Nolan style grounded take, and exposition is suggested rather than explicitly confirmed. The zombies still retain their personality for a while, and can talk, chiefly because this is a film about relationships rather than the apocalypse.

Zach has trouble letting go, even when confronted with a blood drenched, Linda-Blair-in-The-Exorcist version of Beth. Aubrey Plaza spits out her lines like she’s got nails in her mouth, a marked contrast from her usual deadpan sensibilities. This is different from April Ludgate in Parks and Recreations, though it does share that show’s odd sweetness at times. The funniest role belongs to Matthew Gray Gubler (from Criminal Minds, and not a type of bird P.G. Wodehouse invented) as Zach’s brother Kyle, who is having the time of his life during a zombie attack as he gets to shoot things and use a two-way radio.

It’s an impressive cast (Anna Kendrick turns up as the friend of Zach’s Mum’s daughter, awkwardness ensuing as a result of the maternal conspiracy), one that will hopefully help the film find a wider audience than your standard thoughtful, low-budget zombie movie. The parents also have an amusing subplot that ties into the greater ‘be careful what you wish for’ theme, as the movie makes the most of its suburban setting and the idea that respectable people might be keeping secrets behind closed doors.

Life After Beth is richer in themes and underlying observations than it is in comedy, but it’s still a funny movie. It can slip effortlessly from tear-jerking to undignified physical comedy in a matter of seconds. There’s a subtle darkness to it, so even if it’s only mildly gory it still has moments of discomfort.

In balancing ideas, romance, and comedy Baena’s made a movie with wide appeal, although the balance isn’t quite right to make this an instant classic, you’re bound to leave impressed by at least one of these aspects. However, it feels like a cult date movie waiting to happen, one that you can share theories over afterwards, once you’ve finished laughing, crying, and swapping stories of past emotional trauma.

Rating:

4 out of 5