About six weeks ago I was listening to the screenwriting podcast Scriptnotes, in which two veterans discuss the dos and don’ts of the craft, and they spent about twenty minutes on character names. Some of the tips are simple, yet thoughtful (e.g. make sure character names do not rhyme, and have a different number of syllables), and after Life After Beth there’s another I’d like to add: don’t choose a character name just so a movie title is also a pun. The latest zombie romantic comedy – yes, there are several of them now – tries to strike a balance between deadpan comedy and gnawing romantic passion. It does not quite succeed, and not just because the premise falls apart. From scene to scene, the love story is way too one-sided.
A severe college student named Zach (Dane DeHaan) attends the funeral of his girlfriend Beth (Aubrey Plaza), who died from a snakebite during a hike by herself. He takes her death harder than Beth’s parents (John C. Reilly and Molly Shannon), and hangs out their home like a ghost. Zach’s parents (Paul Reiser and Cheryl Hines) worry he’s too grim, while his asshole brother Kyle (Matthew Gray Gubler) openly mocks his grief. One evening Zach sees a flash of a familiar face: it is Beth, who is back from the dead. At first, he thinks her parents faked her death, but then something’s not quite right about her. Temperamental and vicious, Zach begins to realize Beth is a zombie. But he still loves her, damn it, so he tries to make it work even as a mini apocalypse descends around his suburban home.
Written and directed by Jeff Baena, who also wrote the screenplay for I Heart Huckabees, the premise tweaks standard zombie rules in order to create bittersweet irony. For a while, anyway, Baena gets away with it: there is a sense of true longing and need when Zach fights for alone time with Beth. In the movie’s best scene, one where Beth is slightly self-aware, she and Zach get into an argument over what she should have more dinner, and the macabre undertones raise the stakes from the typical situation where your significant other volleys back, “I don’t know. What do YOU feel like having?” Life After Beth falters when it loses interest over the Beth/Zach dynamic, and looks at the tedious big picture. I seriously doubt there’s an interesting way to make a zombie origin story feel fresh again, yet Baena goes through the motions obediently.
It’s to the credit of the cast that they play this material absolutely straight. Never once does Zach tell a joke, or find his situation funny. DeHaan and the others trust the script when it veers into screwball comedy, letting Baena hit the punch-lines for them. Also, Beth is the latest example of how Plaza is type-cast. She plays into the reputation of her @evilhag persona, and there is genuine acting chops by the time Beth is more monster than human. Her performance would have a deeper emotional impact, however, if Baena provided a little more context into the relationship between her and Zach. By the time we meet Beth, she’s already well on her way to being a zombie, so there’s never an opportunity for the audience to mourn alongside Zach. Solaris also dealt with a resurrected lover, except the plot left room for psychological depth. The romance in Life After Beth unfolds with the unimaginative logic of a horror film, which leaves little room to focus on a would-be romance.
Life After Beth looks different from zombie films. The cinematography has an aggressive orange hue, so it looks more like a suburban satire than, say, the sickly greens of The Walking Dead. It’s captivating, weirdly, at least until the final act where the gore is a mere afterthought, instead of being front and center. But the biggest problem afflicting Life After Death is the zombie rules: are all the dead rising from the grave, even those that are several generations old? Baena is not so sure, and his attempt at world-building has little cohesion. That wouldn’t be a problem, except he presents us with background details once the central relationship putters out. Somewhere in Life After Beth, there is a terrific, darkly funny two character movie that pushes its premise toward a violent, heartbreaking conclusion.