by Kathie Smith
Popular culture has a way of taking a successful motif and flogging it until the horse is not only dead but nearly unrecognizable. Such is the case with our fictional fantasies of the undead. George Romero had a simple premise in 1968 with Night of the Living Dead: a broad swath of the population mysteriously transforms into catatonic cannibals, causing the remaining individuals to measure their leadership, humanity, and will to live. Subtle variations on this theme have ruled the past ten years with a gleefully diverse grab bag that includes Danny Boyle’s horror film turned social parable 28 Days Later, AMC’s serialized soap opera The Walking Dead (not to mention Robert Kirkman and Tony Moore’s brutal and infectious comic books), Spanish found footage series [REC], and language-as-virus in Pontypool. Coming full circle, another exploding subset parodies the genre with comedic flair: Shaun of the Dead (2004), Zombieland (2009), Dead Snow (2009), and Juan of the Dead (2011). Where will it all end?
The Film Society of Minneapolis/St Paul
Director: Jeff Baena
Producers: Elizabeth Destro, Michael Zakin
Writer: Jeff Baena
Cinematographer: Jay Hunter
Editor: Colin Patton
Cast: Aubrey Plaza, Dane DeHaan, John C. Reilly, Molly Shannon, Cheryl Hines, Paul Reiser, Matthew Gray Gubler, Anna Kendrick
Premiere: January 19, 2014 – Sundance Film Festival
US Theatrical Release: August 15, 2014
US Distributor: A24
Unfortunately, it will likely end with wringing the creative towel dry with films like Life After Beth, a zombie romance featuring the spry talents of first-time director Jeff Baena (who wrote the script for David O. Russell’s I Heart Huckabees, for which he receives a comedic genius card in my book) and deadpan darling of the moment Aubrey Plaza. Plaza plays Beth Slocum, absent as the film opens and we watch her friends and family morn her untimely death by snakebite. Most traumatically affected by Beth’s all-too-soon departure is her boyfriend (or more accurately recent ex-boyfriend) Zack (Dane DeHaan), who, with his pallid color and floppy straight hair, looks the part of a zombie he is not. Zack finds no sympathy with his superficial family but seems to find a friend in Beth’s affable pot-smoking father Maury (John C. Reilly)—that is until Maury stops answering the door and Zack’s phone calls. As it turns out, Maury and his wife Geenie (Molly Shannon, phoning in a traumatized mother) are hiding the fact that Beth has inexplicably returned from the dead.
Much like Beth’s parents, Zack is so desperate for a second chance with Beth that he overlooks the peculiarities of her resurrected personality. His caution—“You don’t want to eat me, do you?”—is overridden by his libido, as he and Beth paw at each other like horny teenagers and escape her parent’s grip to have sex in broad daylight in a public park. Oblivious to her own death and confused about why everyone is acting so strange, Beth obsesses over a non-existent test and soothes her irrational anger with smooth jazz. None of this seems very zombie-like, but that is Life After Beth’s subtle point that it quietly makes over and over again.
Life After Beth functions on a certain level of absurdity, but Baena rarely accentuates or delivers any real laughs. Its vignette-like structure rambles somewhat inconsequentially from demented teen love story to grand zombie apocalypse. Beth, and half the town, finally devolves into apathetic flesh-eating beings. The movie’s climax—in which Zach takes Beth for a hike with a stove strapped to her back and a boom box playing elevator music looped around her neck as she growls “…pretty…pretty…”—hits a pitch-perfect farcical note that the rest of the movie misses by an octave.
Despite a wry script and inspired supporting cast, Life After Beth fails in execution and fashions a shrug around its trendy themes. Sparks of life, however, like lightning out of nowhere, exist with the lackluster package. The emblematic opening with droning guitar riffs had me glued, as did its distinctive compositions that ambiguously draw us into the story. Likewise, carefully drawn and well-acted supporting characters give the movie a living pulse. Zach’s brother Kyle (Matthew Gray Gubler) dreams of being Dirty Harry in his sad suburban security guard uniform. When zombieland goes full tilt, Kyle snaps to action, admitting to Zack in a whiny voice, “All I ever wanted to do was shoot people.” This sardonic moment, mocking male gun-toting machismo, passes way too quickly and is, quite frankly, suffocated by a much less interesting Zack. But the highlight, and nearly worth the price of admission, is Anna Kendrick’s brief appearance as Erica, a friend of Zack’s family (their moms jazzercise together) prepped to catch Zack on the rebound. Her persona—dim, perky, sweet, and completely innocent—goes beyond caricature, and when she gets into a catfight with jealous zombie girlfriend Beth, Kendrick outdoes herself by delivering an accusation to Beth with precise no-nonsense gusto: “You’re weirdly strong!”
The promise of Huckabee-like comedy combined with zombies and Plaza’s ubiquitous likeability proves too much for Life After Beth. Points for the clever title and the Laura Palmer-esque poster only go so far, and DeHaan’s Zack never earns our interest, much less our sympathy as the lead character. Plaza fans will be disappointed with how much screen time she has compared to DeHaan. But hope springs eternal—a new dawn emerges over the chaos of Herb Alpert and the living dead, making room for Zack to move on and mend his wounded heart. Similarly for Baena, his knack for humorous social commentary will not be buried with a prosaic film like Life After Beth. Even if he’s having self-doubts like Albert Markovski in I Heart Huckabees, here’s hoping he doesn’t fucking quit.