Life After Beth begins with a seemingly innocuous image of Beth (Aubrey Plaza from Parks and Recreation) strolling through the woods on a hike. All seems normal except for the atonal guitar chords ringing on the soundtrack — courtesy of Black Rebel Motorcycle Club — that tell us something ominous is afoot. It is that mix of the mundane and the unsettling that is both this movie’s strongest asset and weakest element, as writer/director Jeff Baena attempts to balance the tone of this quirky little horror comedy with mixed results.
The film cuts from that opening image to a funeral: Beth, it turns out, was bitten by a snake on her hike and is dead, leaving behind her devastated boyfriend Zach (Dane DeHaan, fresh off The Amazing Spider-Man 2) and equally grief-stricken parents Maury (John C. Reilly) and Geenie (Molly Shannon). In the aftermath, Zach clings to Beth’s favorite scarf and her parents, hanging around their house, having long talks with Maury and even confessing that he and Beth were having relationship trouble in their last few weeks together.
Then suddenly Maury and Geenie don’t want to see Zach anymore and stop returning his calls. Distraught, he visits their house unannounced – and discovers that Beth is back from the dead, with no memory of dying and confused memories of everything else before that. Although Zach wants things to go back to “normal,” it’s clear early on that whatever “normal” is, it’s no longer part of the language of Zach and Beth’s relationship, especially when she begins acting in a disturbingly violent manner and eventually hungering for human flesh.
The “zom-com” has been surfacing more and more often in recent times, with last year’s tepid Warm Bodies being the latest example until now. But while that was a hopeful if homogenized tale of love actually solving the zombie problem, Life After Beth is instead about letting go: letting go of a failed relationship, letting go of a deceased loved one, even letting go of the lifestyle and culture you are comfortably settled in. Beth is not the only reanimated corpse in town, you see, and despite signs of something terrible happening around them, many of this story’s characters attempt to carry on with their everyday lives while ignoring the signs of catastrophe around them.
Thankfully we don’t really see much of a widespread zombie plague — we’ve had enough of those on TV and the big screen — until the final third of the film, and Baena (who co-wrote David O. Russell’s weird I Heart Huckabees) makes his one big change to zombie lore by allowing them to come back almost as they were before they died. That’s how Zach, Maury and Geenie first experience the resurrected Beth, but it’s their insistence on pretending that nothing is wrong that allows Zach to ignore the patch of rotting flesh on Beth’s thigh and have sex with her, while her parents casually wave off the fact that she is building a makeshift grave in the attic.
It’s these little morbid touches that I ultimately found captivating about Life After Beth, and which make it an uneasy and even creepy viewing experience even as one chuckles at the absurd humor (the story owes something to Robert Bloch’s great short story, “A Case of the Stubborns”). Plaza’s offbeat performance also treads that fine line, and her tantrums are both child-like and frightening — she’s like a toddler trapped in the body of a homicidal maniac. Less effective is DeHaan, who doesn’t quite get his timing down in his first comedy and whose Zach veers too far into whininess. Reilly and Shannon — along with Cheryl Hines and Paul Reiser as Zach’s parents — are fairly funny if a bit too broad to come alive as fully realized characters (Anna Kendrick adds some sparkle as a prospective new romance for Zach).
You can eventually sense Baena struggling to get the story across the finish line, and it feels too long for its own good, but Life After Beth still has enough queasy charm — and that no-holds-barred performance from Plaza — to make it just entertaining enough. More worrisome to me is that, in the broader scheme of things, Life After Beth doesn’t really add much to a genre that has been stretched to the breaking point by its acceptance into mass culture. Zombies are soon due to fall out of favor with the public, and while Life After Beth doesn’t really nudge them toward the cliff, it doesn’t do a whole lot to keep them from falling either.
Life After Beth is out in theaters today (Friday, August 15).