Life After Beth (2014)

Directed By: Jeff Baena
Written By: Jeff Baena
Starring: Aubrey Plaza
  Dane De Haan
  John C Reilly
  Molly Shannon
Life After Beth

Back in 2004, when Edgar Wright’s brilliant Shaun Of The Dead was released, a rom-zom-com seemed like a bizarre idea for a movie. On a mainstream level, at least, a romantic horror story had yet to take hold as a viable concept and yet, ten years later, it’s established its own sub-subgenre to the point it’s almost stale. Last year’s Warm Bodies was charming enough, but not exactly life-changing, while director Joe Dante’s long-mooted Burying The Ex promises to put a different spin on things, but apart from Shaun there haven’t been any remarkable examples.

Into this pantheon steps Life After Beth, a diverting little indie take that works, for the most part, thanks to some winning performances from its star-studded cast – including the ultimate anti-manic pixie dream girl, Aubrey Plaza. Plaza is the titular Beth, who passes away following a deadly snakebite. Boyfriend Zach (Dane De Haan) goes full Morrissey after her death – sulking, refusing to eat, and clad only in black save for a scarf of hers that he wears in spite of the weather. When Beth returns from the grave, her parents insist on keeping her death a secret from her, but Zach believes they can pick up where they left off and that she’ll accept her new zombie status and just get on with it.

It’s worth noting that Life After Beth is more rom and com than zom. Although it played at Frightfest, and was mostly well-received, questions were raised as to its suitability – much like last year’s RIPD – and it’s easy to see why. Beth’s zombification comes late in the narrative, and Plaza remains remarkably pretty throughout her transformation. De Haan actually looks more like the un-dead than she does, with his waxy complexion and sunken eyes. The two make a cute couple, though – one wonders if thirty-year-old Plaza will still be a believable teenager in her forties – and writer/director Jeff Baena has a lot to say about the reality of young relationships.

As it turns out, the problems Zach and Beth were having prior to her death aren’t easily forgotten after her resurrection, and a new love interest, played by the always-adorable Anna Kendrick, complicates matters further as Zach realises maybe he’d prefer a girlfriend with whom he can walk around in the daylight. Baena seems to envision Life After Beth as a showcase of Plaza’s talents, and rightly so. She is a fine actress, and the role gives her room to show off what she can do – although she’ll probably never find one more suitable than Julie in Scott Pilgrim Vs The World – but this is De Haan’s film, and he takes to the sullen, downcast and very confused Zach expertly.

Much of the first act involves him sulking and snapping at his family, but he somehow makes Zach adorably pathetic instead of selfish and annoying. There are a number of well-executed sight gags as he mopes, all in black, by the pool in the sunshine or sits silently at the dinner table with Beth’s multi-coloured scarf around his neck – “I have the same scarf!” she quips later, in one of many clever, throwaway lines in Baena’s accomplished script.

John C. Reilly and Molly Shannon are terrific as Beth’s desperate parents, him trying to keep her hidden away, her trying to be helpful to the grieving Zach while refusing to give up hope their daughter will be all right. At one point, Shannon actually feeds Beth a few of her fingers, because she has to eat something. Elsewhere, Matthew Gray Gubler is wonderful as Zach’s try-hard, goody-goody brother, who takes his job as a security guard in Beth’s neighbourhood a bit too seriously, while a cameo from the always welcome Adam Pally, as an annoyed waiter, is pitch perfect. The message of the flick is the importance of family, and this is particularly evident in the strangely sweet ending that wisely straddles the line between soppy and heart-warming.

Refreshingly, Life After Beth’s characters use the word “zombie” with ease, but no explanation is given for the sudden outbreak – the un-dead simply dig themselves out of their graves and return home, often to hilarious effect, such as when the old owners of Zach’s family’s house show up to kick them out. It’s a clever move on Baena’s part, as over-explanation can kill zombie movies before they’ve even really begun shuffling. In fact, Warm Bodies suffered from too many on-the-nose references and an overabundance of info on what was really going down. Life After Beth, much like its central character, is content to just exist.

While it’s not exactly reinventing the (sub-sub)genre, and some will find its indie leanings a bit irritating – the soundtrack is annoyingly hip, for example – Life After Beth is a refreshing take on the rom-zom-com that places a realistic young couple in an unrealistic spot and somehow makes their plight seem totally normal. The cast are game, the humour is pitch black, and Dane De Haan steals the show even more so than when he was opposite Andrew Garfield’s comatose Spiderman.

The definition of a date movie for horror nerds, in the weirdest possible way.

Rating: ★★★★★★★★☆☆

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