Ever since Warm Bodies discovered the mainstream appeal of romance in a time of zombies, I’d been wondering how long it would take for other filmmakers to cash in on the rotting flesh of young love. Trying to love a zombie isn’t exactly the easiest feat, no matter how beautiful those cold, dead eyes look, but at least there’s hope throughout Warm Bodies, showing a zombie transforming back to his mortal form.
Jeff Baena’s Life After Beth is a role-reversal horror dramedy not about finding love, but instead losing love, finding it once again as a shambling zombie, and then somehow letting go. Beth Slocum inexplicably (Aubrey Plaza) comes back from the grave looking human enough, minus some heavy bags under her eyes and the snake bite that originally caused her death, and her grieving boyfriend Zach (Dane DeHaan) couldn’t be happier. But what starts as a miracle quickly turns into fear, uncertainty and absolute chaos as Beth slowly becomes more and more zombie like, and all Zach can do is watch – while noticing other deceased townspeople wandering the streets once again. It’s the zombie apocalypse, but all this heartbroken teen cares about is saving his dead girlfriend – how romantic?
Of course, the entire movie is a metaphor for letting go of a relationship no matter how hard it may seem. You’ll always remember your first love, no matter how disastrous the experience might have been, because you’ll never have your heart broken the same way again. This is the reality Zach is living, as it’s slowly revealed that these two lovebirds may have been experiencing a rough patch before Beth’s untimely death, but Beth’s “resurrection” gives Zach another chance. Blinded by grief, the idealistic boy visualizes a world where he does everything “right” and love conquers all, or in other terms, do all the things he never actually wanted to do with Beth.
Baena’s story channels our blinding instincts to grasp onto compromising comfort instead of letting go and embracing the pain, bringing a bluntness to our very protective nature when faced with hurtful choices. Letting go is never easy, especially when your girlfriend slowly is developing a hunger for your meaty brains, and Baena strikes a sweet, sorrowful chord amongst the grieving Romeos and Juliettes, thinking hearts can never be resuscitated after being stomped out for the first time.
Despite being a Shakespearean tragedy with a pinch more zombie gore and explosions, Life After Beth has a bit of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde syndrome in that half of Baena’s film saunters along with stinging emotions and ridiculous fun, while the side we despise – the Jekyll – appears flat, soulless, and absolutely winded. Aubrey Plaza has moments of pure undead brilliance as Beth, inarguably the highest moments Baena achieves, but a creeping lifelessness invades other scenes of failed zombie comedy, creating a wishy-washy contrast without much fluidity. Scenes feel inconsequential while Baena is establishing his apocalyptic scenario, as the confusing epidemic sweeps Zach’s paint-by-numbers town without much danger besides hearing gunshots far off in the distance – an aspect Baena never really explains.
This isn’t something I’m used to saying, but John C. Reilly feels extremely under-utilized in his role as Beth’s father. Teaming with comedian Molly Shannon, the Slocums never break from their modern-day Leave It To Beaver family dynamic, now complete with a zombie daughter. Refusing to explore any alternative reasoning for their daughter’s return, undead monster or not, Reilly employs a string of preventative tactics in the hope of never telling Beth about her accident – but his overly stern demeanor never quite meshes with Life After Beth‘s darkly humorous tone. Zach isn’t the only character struggling with letting go, but Reilly’s obsession with keeping his sweet, innocent daughter alive doesn’t hold the same lovestruck gravity, nor is his outlandish comedic presence exploited properly. The whole blissfully-ignorant-Jewish-father look doesn’t really suit Reilly, and along with Paul Reiser and Cheryl Hines, the trio become lost amidst an actual zombie apocalypse – only worrying about cleaning the blood off of their neatly-ironed shirts.
As expected, Life After Beth is Aubrey Plaza’s show to run, and the young funnywoman does so with a lively vigor while playing an undead girlfriend. It takes a lot to inject life into the lifeless, but Beth is an uproarious zombie character thanks to Plaza’s uninhibited, relentless, and uncaged performance tactics that really call on such an expansive range of emotions. Blending romantic comedy situations with fearful horror themes, Plaza has to go from loving companion to hungry monster in the blink of an eye, and she does so with tremendous success while keeping an angsty teenage personality even when munching brains. Beth could have easily been a one-trick-poney, but her character scores some serious laughs when dealing with elements that come along with craving flesh. Baena creates an unconventional look at becoming a zombie, as Beth remains aware of her transformation as in other classics like Return Of The Living Dead, but it’s Plaza’s tremendous talents that make her shambling Susie Q an adorable horror character who will win the hearts of genre fans and mainstream audiences alike.
Life After Beth is much more an analysis of relationships than squeamish horror movie, unearthing a bittersweet discovery inside DeHaan’s character Zach. When we lose what we love, our instincts are always to somberly look backwards instead of forwards, obsessing over what we could have done differently to prevent an inevitably hurtful breakup – but life is about moving forward. Baena is the mad scientist behind such a mashup of genres, and while he supplies a pleasantly heartfelt, tender romance, Life After Beth does suffer from a bit of Rigor mortis, bogged down by a silly concept that doesn’t embrace zombie lore for everything it’s worth. Aubrey Plaza has rapidly become one of my favorite actresses, and DeHaan’s chemistry unites these two destined lovers, but besides a tender message about letting go, Baena’s film is a bit slow to the punch – but still ends up a winner none the less.
Aubrey Plaza brings undeniable life to her undead title character, and her shining talents are reason enough to watch Life After Beth.