We can thank – or blame, depending on your perspective – George A. Romero for single-handedly creating (or co-creating) the zombie sub-genre. Zombies existed before Romero came along almost fifty years ago with Night of the Living Dead, of course, but pre-Romero zombies weren’t the ravenous, cannibalistic hordes he created. They were still slow, shuffling, and (more or less) brainless automatons, tied, however, to Western conceptions of voodoo culture. Romero stripped zombies of their supernatural, non- Western elements, making them the product of a plague (radiation in the first film, a virus-like contagion in subsequent films). Since then, the zombie sub-genre has gone into death-like hibernation from time to time, but never truly disappearing. New angles or takes, however, have been hard to come by, with only the occasional twist or genre mash-up like Shaun of the Dead, Zombieland, or Fido to break up the not infrequent monotony.
Writer-director Jeff Baena’s (I Heart Huckabees) feature-length debut, Life After Beth, falls into the horror-comedy mash-up mold, though it leans more toward black comedy than the broader, more moviegoer-friendly comedy of Edgar Wright’s Shaun of the Dead. Like Wright’s film, however, Life After Beth combines the horror and romantic comedy genres, but again for different purposes and effects.
Where Shaun of the Dead used the zombie apocalypse as the background for both a romantic comedy (of sorts) and more centrally, a relationship (bro) comedy, Life After Beth hews closely to the romantic comedy genre as it follows the protagonist, Zach Orfman (Dane DeHaan), a college student home on summer vacation, and the aftermath of his girlfriend Beth Slocum’s (Aubrey Plaza) return from the beyond, slightly confused, but in seemingly fine physical shape, with only a vigorous sex drive and an unusual interest in smooth jazz to distinguish pre- and post-death Beth.
At least initially, Life After Beth explores the grieving process (Zach’s) as his attempts to reconcile himself to Beth’s death prove futile. She dies on a nature hike from a supposed snakebite. Zach turns to Beth’s parents, Maury (John C. Reilly) and Geenie (Molly Shannon), for solace, but after a few days, they stop returning his calls. Eager, maybe even desperate, to reconnect with the Slocums, Zach pays them an unexpected visit, spying a freshly resurrected Beth through a window. Overjoyed, Zach renews his romantic relationship with Beth, ignoring the warning signs (e.g., that smooth jazz thing, her deteriorating physical appearance, and her freakish super-human strength). Not surprisingly, Zach’s parents, Judy (Cheryl Hines) and Noah (Paul Reiser), and older, law-menforcement-obsessed brother, Kyle (Matthew Gray Gubler), don’t believe him when he happily informs them of Beth’s miraculous return.
While a limited budget keeps the slowly unfolding zombie apocalypse offscreen (mostly, it should be added, to positive effect), Life After Beth focuses on the changing nature of Zach and Beth’s relationship. Maintaining a relationship with the undead proves more difficult than Zach imagined, in large part due to Beth’s changing physical and mental state (not to mention her newly human-only diet), but also due to the appearance of an old childhood friend, Erica Wexler (Anna Kendrick), who makes a better long-term romantic partner for Zach. Even before Erica’s introduction, however, Life After Beth unfolds as another variation on the “be careful what you wish for” scenario exemplified by “The Monkey’s Paw” (a short story practically everyone has read) and Bob Clark’s (Black Christmas) Deathdream (a/k/a Dead of Night), a decidedly non-comedic variation on the “loved one coming back from the dead” premise.
Life After Death works best when Baena focuses on the horror side of the horror-comedy equation, letting the black humor emerge organically from Zach’s predicament and Beth’s rapidly deteriorating condition. It’s at worst, however, when Baena attempts to inject dialogue-driven humor or character quirk-driven comedy (as with Kyle’s semi- frequent appearances). It’s not for trying, of course. Given the stellar top-to-bottom cast (e.g., DeHaan’s off-kilter personality, Plaza’s deadpan brilliance, Reilly’s everyman persona), including one hilarious cameo that won’t be spoiled here, it’s more than fair to expect a few more laughs than Life After Death actually delivers. But maybe expectations were too high for a first-time, low-budget film (casting aside). As an entry in the seemingly inexhaustible zombie sub-genre, it’s more than an adequate time filler.
At worst, Life After Beth will convince moviegoers and cable viewers to track down or revisit other horror-comedy entries like the aforementioned Shaun of the Dead, Zombieland, and Fido. The truly semi-adventurous should also seek out the similarly premised, gender-reversed My Boyfriend’s Back (1988).