We’ve reached a point in cinema where zombie comedies are as prevalent and worn out a genre as the straight horror incarnations of the creatures that made them famous in the first place. Zombies are everywhere, whether it’s on TV with The Walking Dead and In the Flesh or in films like World War Z and Zombieland. Even the rom-zom-com subgenre that boomed with the endlessly watchable Shaun of the Dead has seen plenty come in its footsteps, most recently being last year’s Warm Bodies. You can’t escape the undead in pop culture these days, so Life After Beth had an uphill battle in trying to make itself stand out. An independent film screened at Sundance and unlikely to gain a lot of traction among the general populace the way that something like Shaun was able to break out with, Life After Beth is the directorial debut of Jeff Baena (who also wrote it, with his only previous writing credit being I Heart Huckabees) which stars Aubrey Plaza as a young woman who returns to life, much to the surprise of her boyfriend played by Dane DeHaan.
For all of its obstacles, some which it overcomes and some that it doesn’t, Baena’s first movie actually does manage to feel unique among the many other entries in this somewhat stale niche genre. Instead of following the traditional beats of a zombie outbreak or placing us after the fall of humanity, Baena centers everything in a small little community and builds the story from the relationship between Beth (Plaza) and Zach (DeHaan) outward. When Beth returns to life, she initially seems completely normal. There’s no rotting flesh, no hunger for human brains; rather she speaks coherently and is quite confused as to why everyone is acting so weird around her and why her parents (John C. Reilly and Molly Shannon) won’t let her go outside. Over the course of the movie she begins to devolve into a creature more similar to those we’ve seen plenty of times in the past, but it’s a slow progression that allows Zach an opportunity to try and work out the problems that he wasn’t able to before Beth succumbed to a deadly snake bite.
You see, the two had recently broken up and Beth’s passing left Zach shattered, wearing her ugly oversized scarf along with his all black clothing in the middle of summer, sitting by his pool wasting life away. Beth’s return gives him new meaning and he doesn’t want to let this time with her go to waste. The same can be said for her parents, who suffocate her with affection, but what no one seems to really grasp is the fact that this young woman just came back from the dead and they do their best to ignore all the signs that the world is falling apart around them. Baena cheekily includes little hints at things that will develop later on in the film, creating an active universe in the background of this more intimate story of a relationship facing a unique rough patch. There are clever jokes throughout Life After Beth and the cast ably delivers the material, with Reilly and Shannon in particular stealing their scenes. As for the leads, DeHaan continues to be one of the few actors of his age group to genuinely excite me and his unique persona is perfect for something this quintessentially odd, while Plaza is convincing through all the stages of her character’s evolution.
What really sets Life After Beth apart from others of its kind is the way that Baena refuses to play by the rules and seemingly makes up his own as the film goes along. There’s a rambling sensation throughout that makes it feel like it was written on the fly but those little nods allow it to tie itself around nicely in the final act. This niche genre is hard to fully engage in at times (Shaun aside), feeling a bit try-hard and at this point it has grown a little stale, but Baena gives it a new verve that puts it into a tonal area separate from just about anything I’ve ever seen before. That makes it sound more monumental than it actually is, as it’s a very light and inconsequential journey, but it was a tough movie for me to really place, which came with its share of positives and negatives. It took me a while to adjust to Life After Beth's peculiar rhythm but once I did I found it thoroughly enjoyable while at the same time never fully committing to a sincere appreciation for it. Perhaps it leaves things a bit too distant, a bit too removed from a proper structure or anything concrete enough to generate a moving story but at the very least Baena has created a movie that stands out in a crowded market by being substantially more odd.
I also want to mention the production design and wardrope of this film because I really liked the vintage vibe they were going for, that is also a throwback to a lot of the classic zombie films. The attention to detail with the house design, the records, the wayfarer sunglasses, and the cars.
If you enjoy Zombie films I would recommend seeing My Boyfriend’s Back (1993) that features Philip Seymour Hoffman before he made it big, and that follows a similar zombie premise.