If your girlfriend died after you had been having problems, leaving you morose and regretful because you never got to say you were sorry, you might think the greatest good fortune would be her returning to life to give you a shot at reconciliation. Well, you might think that, but you would be wrong. Oh sure, at first everything would seem wonderful, but then the inevitable consequences of post-mortality would emerge: the “rash” suggesting decay, the rank breath, the hunger for raw food of the human variety. Before you knew it, you might find yourself with a rather uncomfortable personal situation on your hands, as you struggled to find a politic manner of informing your memory-challenged beloved of her undead status. As if that were not enough, you might additionally have to deal with a citywide outbreak of zombies – because, as important as you think your romance is, there is no reason to think your girlfriend is the only zombie in town.
In a nutshell, that is the dilemma delineated in Life After Beth – which might not quite be what you were expecting. Gazing at the beaming countenance of Beth on the posters, you might have anticipated a romantic comedy – that is, if the title had not clued you in to expect a mournful drama. What you get instead is a little bit of all of the above, a rom-com-zom-drama that provokes a tear here, a chuckle there, and perhaps the beginning of a scream. It’s an interesting mix, but the ingredients are applied too thinly; by the time the film is over, you may feel as if you have been drinking a watered-down Bloody Mary.
Dane DeHaan (THE AMAZING SPIDER-MAN 2) plays Zach, who is in deep depression after Beth Slocum (Aubrey Plaza) dies from a snakebite while hiking alone; he feels guilty (we later learn) because he never wanted to go on hikes with her. Beth’s parents (John C. Reilly and Molly Shannon) are understanding and sympathetic – more so than Zach’s own family, which includes Paul Reiser as an ineffectual father and Matthew Gray Gubler as a gun-nut brother. But suddenly, the Slocums cut Zach off, refusing to even answer the door when he arrives. It turns out that Beth is back from the grave, and her parents are keeping it secret. Zach’s qualms over Beth’s “resurrection” (as her father calls it, mistakenly referring to the Old Testament) are initially squelched by the resumption of their relationship, which benefits from an interesting side effect: Beth remembers neither having died nor having broken up with Zach.
Life After Beth is, surprisingly, at its best before getting to what horror fans would consider “the good stuff” – the “zom” in this zom-com-rom. The first act, depicting Zach’s relationship with Beth’s parents (he and Mr. Slocum commiserate while smoking pot and playing chess till 3am), plays like a heartfelt indie drama. When Beth reappears, we are initially thrown off by our uncertain expectations: is this going to be a comedy about love’s triumph over the grave or a tragedy about the impossibility of cheating death?
At first, Life After Beth seems to be avoiding the obvious. Though Zach expresses some half-joking concerns the potential for Beth to become a flesh-eating zombie, she appears physically normal. However, there is definitely something wrong: although it is summer vacation, she worries constantly about a test she is taking “tomorrow”; she seems to have trouble remembering things happened only moments ago; and at one point she panics when Zach is out of her field of vision for a few seconds. Amusingly, insipid smooth jazz seems to calm her down (perhaps the film is suggesting that everyone who likes this music is already a zombie, more or less?).
Unfortunately, these intriguing ideas never develop into anything new; they turn out to be simply a long prologue toward what we expected from the beginning: Beth turns into a flesh-eating zombie. Apparently aware that this predictable turn of events is anti-climactic, writer director Jeff Baena juices the third act up with an outbreak of the walking dead: dead relatives and even former homeowners turn up – the ultimate unwanted guests.
At this point, Life After Beth starts to feel like spoof of the French TV series THE RETURNED: the dead are less overtly horrifying than embarrassingly out of place among those who have learned to live on without them. I wish I could say that “hilarity ensues,” but it doesn’t – it’s more like mild amusement.
At least the film gets points for not bothering to explain this small-scale zombie apocalypse. Zach’s one theory (it must have something to do with a maid seen briefly near the beginning) turns out to be a red herring that plays on our stereotyped expectations (she’s Haitian, so she must know voodoo, right?).
As the story moves toward its climax, it regains some of its initial pathos. Zach’s brother urges him to simply put a bullet in Beth’s head, but Zach cannot bring himself to accept the abrupt termination. Zach has never really apologized for the breakup, because it’s a painful memory that Beth left behind in the grave. But with inevitable death looming, Zach finally goes on a hike with her (enhanced by a sight gag that has Beth strapped to stove that was supposed to immobilize her) and says everything he needed to say.
Here, LIFE AFTER BETH comes closest to synthesizing its disparate elements. Beth’s bloody, decayed features are horrific; Zach’s words are poignant; the juxtaposition is comic, without undermining either the emotional impact. Too bad the rest of the film is, more often than not, a case of “either this or that but not enough of either.”
I almost want to say LIFE AFTER BETH is a good half-hour short unwisely expanded to feature length, but the film is slightly better than that. It’s more a matter of unrealized potential than excess length. In fact, the movie is a little bit like the resurrected Beth: it looks good at first, but after awhile you can tell there is something missing beneath the surface.
Life After Beth is currently in limited release, playing an exclusive engagement at the Arclight Cinemas Hollywood, with plans to expand to some art house theatres.
Life After Beth (2014). Distributed by A24. Production Companies: Abbolita Productions, American Zoetrope, Starstream Entertainment. Rated R. 91 minutes. Written and directed by Jeff Baena. Cast: Aubrey Plaza, Dane DeHaan, John C. Reilly, Molly Shannon, Cheryl Hines, Paul Reiser, Matthew Gray Gubler, Anna Kendrick, Eva La Dare.