PLOT: When a young man’s recently deceased girlfriend shows up seemingly unaffected by death, he suspects something may be afoul. His fears are soon realized when she develops a sudden desire for dark and damp places, smooth jazz, and the occasional need to nibble on human flesh.
Now that the romantic life of a zombie is a thing, we are seeing far more zom-rom-com’s than audiences could have ever predicted. Edgar Wright’s brilliant SHAUN OF THE DEAD opened the doors for something very fresh in the sub-genre. The beauty of that is occasionally we get to uncover a different layer in a zombie movie. It is an interesting twist that if done right, can create a very unique take on the undead walking the earth in search of human flesh. LIFE AFTER BETH is one such experiment which injects a decent amount of humor and a whole lot of brooding in one fairly effective indie feature.
We first meet Beth (Aubrey Plaza) as she is taking a walk through the woods. It is a brief shot which then moves on to Zach Orfman (Dane DeHaan) who is attending a funeral. It is revealed that something really terrible happened to Beth and she is being put into the ground. Grief-stricken, the young man finds solace in spending time with Beth’s parents - Maury and Geenie Slocum (John C. Reilly and Molly Shannon) – especially since his own family is frustrated by his misery. When Maury and Geenie suddenly shut Zach out, he finds that they have a secret they are hiding. While trying to find an answer, he discovers that Beth is apparently alive and well and being kept locked away from the outside world.
Writer/director Jeff Baena takes his time to introduce us to the titular character. We see the story unfold through the eyes of Zach and it works well enough. Yet it isn’t until Plaza arrives, completely unaware that she has died and she will be going through a very strange transformation, where LIFE AFTER BETH really shines. Aside from the whole needing to feed on human flesh, she finds herself enjoying being locked away in an attic as well as discovering a deep love for smooth jazz. Aubrey Plaza is absolutely terrific here from her fairly innocuous introduction to her ultimate need to chow down on tasty humans. Hers is a hilarious performance that is worth the price of admission alone.
As far as the rest of the cast, DeHaan can do a brooding young man better than anybody. His discovery of Beth being “alive” and his later realization that all is not as it seems is well played. However the bizarre relationship he shares with Shannon and Reilly occasionally feels forced. Considering they are such loving parents, their behavior is more than a little odd thus slightly distracting. Part of this is simply the fact that the three actors seem to be on very different levels. While DeHaan leans to a more serious performance, Shannon and Reilly seem to be relishing in the humor of it all. I did however appreciate the indifference from Zach’s parents which is well played by Paul Reiser and Cheryl Hines.
As Beth and Zach find themselves reunited after her apparent death, LIFE AFTER BETH succeeds in exploring the delicate balance of a damaged relationship. This inspires a number of very darkly funny sequences involving her zombification. A romantic serenade on the beach turns intensely volatile when Beth takes issue with Zach’s song. The more the infection takes hold, the more fun Ms. Plaza has leading to a funny, yet surprisingly touching finish.
While much of this comedy works, the one major issue I had is introducing the lovely Anna Kendrick so late in the film with what amounts to a throwaway role. The problem is not her by any means. It is just a thankless task when the real star is Aubrey Plaza. The introduction to a possible romantic triangle is not utilized nearly as amusingly as it could have been. She shows up far too late and just offers a couple of funny moments to inspire jealous rage when Beth begins to suffer from her new found zombie mannerisms.
The best thing about this horror comedy – emphasis on the comedy – is Aubrey Plaza. For horror fans however, you will most assuredly be disappointed by the lack of tension from the “zom” aspect. Aside from a decent amount of gore near the end, LIFE AFTER BETH is a dark and subtly comedic look at relationships gone wrong. It may not nearly be as laugh-out-loud funny as the premise may suggest, but it is hard not to find some sort of fun zom-rom-com times.