Life After Beth is a missed opportunity. For months, it’s been marketed as the first of its kind — a “zom-com,” if you will — existing in this guise that assumes fans of the zombie genre would ever forget last year’s Warm Bodies or 1993’s highly underrated My Boyfriend’s Back. But director Jeff Baena got a pass, if only for its enviable ensemble cast that includes Dane DeHaan, Aubrey Plaza, Molly Shannon, Cheryl Hines, Paul Reiser, Matthew Gray Gubler, and the ever resilient John C. Reilly. Unfortunately, the end result is exactly as one might expect: A total misstep that’s not only too late, but far too unfocused.
The film follows a grieving Zach Orfman (DeHaan), whose girlfriend, Beth Slocum (Plaza), dies from an off-screen snake bite. He’s remiss and in shock, but finds solace in hanging out with Beth’s parents (Reilly, Shannon), eventually admitting that he had been experiencing problems with their daughter. As one might expect from a “zom-com,” Beth digs herself out of her grave and comes home no different than Stephen King’s Pet Sematary. When Zach finds out, things get complicated fast, and they soon discover she’s not the only ghoul with a soul.
At this point, there’s very little anyone can do with the zombie genre. Ten years ago (almost to the day), Edgar Wright twisted the format with the remarkable Shaun of the Dead, no thanks to Danny Boyle, who injected new life into the decomposing genre a year prior with 28 Days Later. Since then, it’s been Zombiepalooza with just about everyone in every industry capitalizing on the stumbling corpses, a subject that was recently captured in Alexandre O. Philippe’s enjoyable if not sobering, Doc of the Dead. So really, if anyone’s going to tackle what little is left, it needs to be pretty smart.
There’s a brain to Life After Beth, but it’s wasted on the undead. In the film’s first 20 minutes, DeHaan spends his days moping around in a depressed stupor while wearing his dead girlfriend’s multi-colored scarf in the middle of the summer. The young gem of a star exhibits a comedic side that hasn’t popped up in any of his previous works. Had Baena expanded on this plot element, turning the living into the dead through grief, Life After Beth wouldn’t have turned out to be the uninteresting train wreck that it actually becomes.
But let’s go back to 1993 for a second. Do you actually remember My Boyfriend’s Back? The principal stars are a bunch of no-names at this point, but it did feature a young Philip Seymour Hoffman, in addition to Matthew Fox. Anyways, it’s pretty stupid stuff, but that was the point: It knew how to be stupid. The problem with Life After Beth is that it doesn’t really know what it wants to be. It’s trying to go for indie comedy, but fails with tepid screenwriting. It wants to be zany horror, but the outlandish scares can’t even hold a candle to Sam Raimi’s weakest work.
What’s worse is that the mythology is out of whack. The idea of the dead returning and being obnoxious and a drag on society is pretty funny and actually a topical idea. (Let’s not forget the zombie genre was designed to be just that: topical.) But Baena, who also wrote the picture, really offers up no concrete evidence on being an authority of the subject. They just reappear, and they don’t necessarily seem as much of a threat until it works for the plot. That means the stakes go out the window, and any semblance of a threat follows suit.
It’s a shame because the talent’s there. DeHaan gives it his all despite a lackluster script, and Plaza really wants to make the zombie schtick work. Also, you won’t find a more inspired set of silver screen parents than Reiser and Hines, O’Reilly and Shannon, who all could have been extras given their ample screen time. Oh, there’s also the second love interest (?) in Anna Kendrick, who’s shoehorned in so suddenly even she looks befuddled. So, yeah, it’s like the makings of a five-star meal that’s been reassembled and undercooked at a dilapidated Subway.
Somehow it’s being released on A24 Films, a distribution company that has had an arguably flawless track record with releases — at least this year. Though, you can’t fault them: On paper, Life After Beth should have worked, especially in the Walking Dead-era where teenagers and adults alike fawn over smelly, rotting corpses each and every week. Instead, the film’s sort of like that sad bastard corpse in every zombie film, the one that can’t exactly walk or crawl or pivot, but just groans, mumbles, and prays that somebody pays attention to it. Nope.