Their flesh may be rotten and their memories shot, but zombies are alive and well at the multiplex. In fact, zombie and apocalyptic films have become such a staple of pop culture that a subgenre, zombie comedies (“zom coms”), has sprouted up in recent years with films like “Shaun Of The Dead,” “Zombieland,” and “Warm Bodies.”
Adding to this ever-expanding list is “Life After Beth,” a sporadically funny but slightly underwhelming directorial debut from Jeff Baena that stars Audrey Plaza, Dane DeHaan, John C. Reilly, Paul Reiser, Molly Shannon and Cheryl Hines. With an appealingly wacky premise, an impressive roster of comedic talent, and a screenplay that has hit-and-miss humor but makes good use of familiar zombie tropes, “Life After Beth” will appeal to genre buffs and fans of pitch black comedy.
The film begins with heartbreak. Zach (Dane DeHaan), a sensitive suburbanite, is reeling from the death of his girlfriend, Beth Slocum (Aubrey Plaza), who died from a snakebite while hiking in the woods. Since Zach’s parents (Paul Reiser and Cheryl Hines) aren’t the sentimental types, he finds some much-needed solace in the form of Beth’s parents (John C. Reilly and Molly Shannon), who welcome Zach into their home and share fond memories of their daughter.
Then one day, Beth’s parents mysteriously stop answering their door or taking Zach’s calls. Curious about this sudden cutoff, Zach sneaks over to the Slocum residence and catches a glimpse of someone walking past the window that looks unmistakably like Beth.
Sure enough, when Zach storms into the house against the Slocums’ wishes, there is Beth, inexplicably alive, albeit suffering from memory loss and disorientation. After some initial reluctance, Zach decides to embrace her resurrection and pick up their relationship where it left off. But when Beth starts to develop skin decomposition, superhuman strength and an affinity for human flesh and smooth jazz music, Zach begins to have second thoughts about dating a zombie.
As Zach tries to distance himself from his clingy undead girlfriend, it becomes evident through other strange happenings around town that their sleepy suburban community is in the throes of a full-fledged zombie apocalypse.
Writer-director Jeff Baena, whose only other screen credit is for co-writing the wonderfully quirky “I Heart Huckabees,” clearly relishes the opportunity to satirize the zombie B movie genre, and for a good stretch, the humor is fresh and free-flowing. As one might expect from a zombie movie, the world as presented by Baena is off-kilter, and he does a superb job maintaining that perspective throughout. However, since laughs are all that the writer-director is after, a film like this should be judged on the strength of its humor, which unfortunately elicited little more than muted chuckles. Not helping matters is the fact that the premise somehow manages to run out of gas around the midpoint, which is something of an anomaly, considering how much madness is yet to come. This might be partially attributable to a couple subplots that gain virtually no traction, particularly the one involving Zach’s parents’ attempt to hook him up with a childhood friend (Anna Kendrick), although even the climactic apocalypse feels a little stale. To be sure, there is humor to be wrung from the premise of a regular guy dating a zombie, but there’s a limit, and “Life After Beth” exceeds it.
Luckily, the screenplay’s shortcomings can be overlooked on account of the first-rate talent in front of the camera. As Beth, the lovelorn zombie, Aubrey Plaza (“Parks and Rec,” “The To Do List”) is crazy funny, and also just plain crazy. Although sarcastic types are her bread and butter, Plaza can just as easily hit the tender notes, which works well for the “romantic” moments in this film, scarce as they are. And you may not have found her scary prior to “Life After Beth,” but once you see her go full zombie, you can kiss that loveable smartass persona goodbye. In the role of Zach, Dane DeHaan (The Amazing Spiderman 2”) continues to prove his versatility as he jumps seamlessly from genre to genre. Zach is our clear-eyed vision into this increasingly crazy world, and DeHaan earns some laughs from his incredulous reactions to the insanity going on around him. Notable supporting players include John C. Reilly, who’s reliably hilarious as Beth’s weed smoking dad, and Matthew Gray Gubler (“Criminal Minds”) as Zach’s brother, a gun-toting security guard.
Of the comedies to choose from this weekend, “Frank” is the can’t-miss, but if zombies are your bag, “Life After Beth” might just be the way to go.
By Lucas Mirabella
Running Time: 91 minutes
Rated R for pervasive language, some horror violence, sexual content, nudity and brief drug use.