OH NO! NOT ANOTHER ZOMBIE FLICK!
Aubrey Plaza's bright performance uplifts another unneeded venture into zombie world.
By Don L. Stradley
Not many movies start out so well, and offer such a unique and interesting premise, only to dissolve into something so predictable. Life After Beth is a zombie movie that wanted to be something more, realized it couldn't, so it decided to be as much of a zombie movie as possible. The opening scene of Aubrey Plaza, the Beth of the title, wandering through some woods while horribly distorted guitar chords roar on the soundtrack created a perfectly discordant atmosphere. The immediate followup scene where Beth is dead and her parents and boyfriend are mourning her retains the feeling that this movie isn't going to move and breathe the way most movies move and breathe.
The feeling that we've been deceived only sets in later. See, when the boyfriend spots Beth a day after her death, and then sees her walking around in her parents' house, the strangeness of the movie is still strong. Beth has returned from the dead. She's clueless about what happened, but she seems just like sweet Beth, though a bit on the horny side. She also collects mud to cover the walls of the attic, where she seems most comfortable.
Life After Beth is the directorial debut of Jeff Baena, whose only other credit is the screenplay for I Heart Huckabees (2004). It's not a great creative breakthrough, but it is a satisfactory "zombie comedy," with a few stabs at dark humor, and a pretty good performance from Plaza. I'm just not sure we even needed another zombie movie.
The current zombie fad is lost on me - I think zombie fans like the idea of wandering around aimlessly until someone kills you. Or maybe, with the ever growing complications of our high tech, under employed society, the simplicity of a zombie's life is attractive, or even something to envy. You don't do much, just shuffle around looking for brains to eat. Before you know it, you have tons of friends who are just like you, shambling along at your side. I imagine this is more fun than dinking around on Facebook.
Baena, who allegedly wrote the sript more than a decade ago, does find some humor in places that other zombie movies miss, such as when zombies roam the neighborhood looking for their old homes. There's also a running gag where Baena's zombies like smooth jazz, which sounds funny on paper. Where Baena stumbles badly is in trying to mix his humor with the pathos of watching a loved one degenerate into a zombie. When Beth shows signs that she is not right mentally, the movie is effectively melancholy. There's a sadness in watching someone you love go through such a strange metamorphosis. I also liked how Beth's parents were willing to let this new version of Beth linger, keeping her indoors all day so no one in the neighborhood would see her. But it's a thin gimmick that wears out after a while. Maybe that's why Baena turns on the gore.
I also wonder if the movie's chances were hurt by featuring so many familiar faces, from John C. Reilly and Molly Shannon to Paul Reiser, Cheryl Hines, and Anna Kendrick. Though I like all of those people, they were distracting here. What the hell is Reiser doing in a zombie movie, anyway? I think Life After Beth might have worked better with a cast of unknowns. The exception is Aubrey Plaza, who is fascinating as Beth. She finds a way to show the sweetness of her character, even as she's drooling blood.
What's the bottom line on a movie like this? It's certainly not scary, and the humor is so light that it barely qualifies as a comedy. Judging by the rather goofy marketing campaign that ushered the movie into its original release a few months ago, I gather this was supposed to be a comedy. The problem is that it worked best when it wasn't trying to be funny.