NOTE: This is a reprint of my review from the Sundance Film Festival. Life After Beth is available now exclusively on DirecTV.
It seems like so long ago that zombie movies were cool, but eventually the market became so flooded with the undead that they became as stale as their rotted flesh. That's led to a number of twists on the zombie genre designed to give it a fresh look; make them funny (thank you Shaun of the Dead), make them romantic parodies (lookin' at you Warm Bodies), make them something other than scary flesh-eaters. And already we've seen so many of these films that the update is in dire need of an update, best evidenced by Life After Beth, an indistinguishable and messy zombie comedy with a lot of talent but not a lot of laughs.
Written and directed by Jeff Baena, co-writer of David O. Russell's wonky I Heart Huckabees, Life After Beth is just as scattered tonally, and doesn't seem to have a clear point to make about relationships. An ominous shot of a girl hiking through the woods introduces us very briefly to Beth (Aubrey Plaza), who had just recently dumped her ex-boyfriend Zach (Dane DeHaan) to "see other people". When she dies suddenly under mysterious circumstances, Zach is understandably broken up and reaches out for any connection to her he can find. That means spending a lot of time with her parents (John C. Reilly and Molly Shannon), and pining for a second chance to do things over.
Miraculously, he gets his wish when Beth shows up at her home with zero recollection of anything that had happened. She doesn't remember the break-up or any of the problems that led up to it; all she recalls are the happy times. At first Zach comes to believe she's a zombie, but is unable to convince Beth's parents who want to act as if their daughter's return is perfectly normal. Eventually Zach just decides to go with it and take this opportunity to fix their relationship. It's like a really screwed up version of The Vow as they go out to their favorite spots and even have sex (ewwwww), while her fractured memory continues to deteriorate. But when she starts to decompose and give in to fits of rage, not even Zach is able to ignore it for long.
Ostensibly about our need to hold on to an ugly but comfortable past rather than moving on to something new, the Baena never takes this idea seriously enough for it to hold any significance. Nor is there any consistency to Zach's reaction to Beth's return. At first shocked and a little horrified, he goes in a flash to loving her again, only to fall out of love just as quickly. As he attempts to move on with an old acquaintance (Anna Kendrick), Zach just looks like a jerk, and a wish-washy one at that. No wonder Beth dumped him in the first place.
With a supporting cast that also includes Paul Reiser and Cheryl Hines, there a number of funny comic touches, but laughs never come consistently. The best gags come as Beth begins to exhibit zombie behavior for the first time, subtly snapping her jaws and growing more feral. The film makes the most out of zombie indestructibility, and sight gags involving a car and a giant weight strapped to Beth's back are truly inspired. It's unclear whether we're supposed to take this zombie threat (yes there are other undead walking around) seriously or just brush it off as genre silliness. If Baena wants us to take something meaningful from this story it's not readily apparent.
Safety Not Guaranteed offered a small glimpse of the sweeter side of Aubrey Plaza, but we see it fully on display here. She actually gets to cover the entire spectrum as Beth goes from Zach's excitable lover to drenched in blood and screaming at the top of her lungs in anger, confusion, and ultimately hunger. DeHaan is perhaps too cerebral of an actor for a role that requires him to be lighter on his feet comedically, and we get some solid work from the reliable John C. Reilly. Life After Beth doesn't compare to the best the zom-com genre has to offer, but nor is it the absolute worst. It lies somewhere in the unimpressive middle, and maybe it's time for other movies such as this to stay buried for awhile.