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They’re everywhere. From The Walking Dead to Warm Bodies to World War Z, we love zombie movies. They fit right into the larger apocalyptic trend, which lets us think “well, we’re not that far away from that” and shiver a little. They tap into a fear of science gone wrong (I Am Legend), or of losing everyone you’ve ever met and being forced together with a hodgepodge of unhinged strangers (Zombieland). Sometimes it gets political too.
But whatever it is, in order for it to work, it had better explain itself. You’ve got to know where the zombies came from.
So I was surprised when Life After Beth totally skipped over that one. It doesn’t even take place in the far-off future, where a band of misfits battle for survival surrounded by mindless limping human-shaped monsters with their arms out in front of them. The story is nestled in a nice suburban neighborhood with a warm instrumental soundtrack fitted to the “indie” film it’s trying to be.
Zach (Dane DeHaan) is just coming to terms with the death of his girlfriend Beth (Aubrey Plaza) when she suddenly comes back from the grave. According to her father Mr. Slocum (John C. Reilly), she just showed up at their door a few days after her death from a snake bite. “She died and she’s not dead now. I don’t know why. But my daughter is back!” Days later, rotting flesh and frenzied teeth-gnashing mental breakdowns develop, and more, longer-deceased people start showing up in the same state.
How? Why? We’re never told. We’re expected to be too entertained by the antics of Beth’s mom (Molly Shannon) and the sight of Plaza with an oven strapped to her back to ask.
To be fair, Jeff Baena’s directoral debut IS a comedy, though it borders on something bleaker. Plaza (fun fact: Baena’s own girlfriend) recently said that she’s sick to death of the word “deadpan,” because her humor is a lot more than that. In Life After Beth, she proves it, even in scenes with a bag over her head. Fans of Parks and Rec will definitely enjoy watching Beth go from a kind of giddy, pushy, polka-dot dress-wearing girlfriend to a frenzied, needy destroyer of guitars, to a full-on zombie who still (foaming at the mouth) wants her boyfriend to go on a hike with her.
And DeHaan is perfect, channeling the tentative niceness generally ascribed to Michael Cera and the droll dryness of John Heder. The weak link is weirdly veteran John C. Reilly, who seems to think he’s in a more urgent movie (and his script does little to help).
A movie with no we-lost-control-in-the-lab scenario could be fine, as long as it tried to do something else, too. Life After Beth does try.
In her first fit of blossoming zombieness, she keeps crying repeatedly, “I don’t want to be alone!” It’s all the same sort of story when you’re running from zombies and trying not to let yourself or a loved one get gnawed. But what if you’re convinced you’re alive and fine, while everyone starts telling you you’re not you? When you lose your faculties, sanity, and some important flesh, and you’re still fighting (and galloping headlong into your boyfriend’s moving car) to avoid being alone, what’s left of you?
The events should have unfolded to give at least some answers, or lessons, or really just anything more than the little one-liners like “We’re ALL suffering” and “You can’t be both dead and alive.”
But everything jerkingly unravels into plot bunny trails, jokes that don’t stick, limbs that go flying, and new zombie facts that don’t get explained (“Let them stay in the attic - they like attics”). The gags (some literal, some not) keep it kinda fun to watch, but Life After Beth is too little to satisfy the appetite of zombie flick fans, and much too messy to amount to something more.
The usual zombie elements: staggering bodies, blood, explosions, some language, etc. A character gets hit by a car and is seen struggling under the wheel for a minute. Two characters have sex (clothes don’t really come off). Sexual harassment is mentioned but not seen. An almost-zombie nameless extra shows up completely naked just to nudge the film towards the R rating it may not have had before. A mother feeds her zombie daughter her own hand (but you don’t see it). Limbs come flying off a zombie strapped to a large kitchen appliance tumbling down a mountain.
Taylor Lindsay is a writer in New York City. She contributes regularly to Indiewire.