A quirky premise isn’t enough to carry an entire film.
A boyfriend unsuccessfully copes with his girlfriend’s passing and resurrection during a zombie outbreak in Life After Beth (2014). Written and directed by Jeff Baena, this comedy-horror manages to be neither terrifying nor funny. Life After Beth has its moments, but its poorly thought out horror elements interrupt and undermine what could have otherwise been an interesting exploration of love, loss, and regret, and the importance of letting go.
Young Zach Orfman (Dane DeHaan) is devastated when his girlfriend, Beth Slocum (Aubrey Plaza), dies from a snakebite. His parents, Noah (Paul Reiser) and Judy (Cheryl Hines), urge him to move on. Zach becomes suspicious to the point of paranoia when Beth’s parents, Maury (John C. Reilly) and Geenie (Molly Shannon), abruptly stop speaking with him and cloister themselves in their home.
Things get complicated when Zach discovers Beth has returned from the dead. Her parents consider it a miracle, but Zach just can’t accept the new status quo. Beth’s strange behavior, as well as the appearance of other long-dead people from his past, has him asking questions. His testosterone-fueled brother, Kyle (Matthew Gray Gubler), springs into action as the zombie apocalypse unfolds. Can Zach discover a cure for the zombie outbreak and save his lost love?
An interesting premise and talented cast weren’t enough to save Life After Beth from lousy writing and direction. I understand Zach’s struggle with loss and letting go of his girlfriend is the film’s central conflict, but that doesn’t give the horror elements a pass. World building is important in any zombie film. Why are the dead coming back to life? What do they want? Is there a cure? How can they be stopped? None of these questions are answered in its 89-minute runtime.
Beth’s parents urge Zach to accept the miracle and not worry about why Beth has returned from the dead (perhaps as a message for the audience). But Zach rejects their advice and looks for an explanation. His efforts ultimately lead to a dead end. The zombies’ strange behavior, like nesting in attics and being soothed by elevator music, likewise go unexplained. Why include these elements at all if they serve no purpose? I found myself more frustrated than entertained.
Casting was a mixed bag as well. Aubrey Plaza is perfect for this type of role. Dane DeHaan was actually sympathetic and relatable and not as creepy or reptilian as he was in Valerian and The City of a Thousand Planets or A Cure for Wellness. Once again, Molly Shannon and John C. Reilly play awkward adults in a Jeff Baena film. It didn’t work in The Little Hours and it doesn’t work here. Not sure the rationale behind casting top tier comedians in secondary roles that don’t play to their strengths.
Life After Beth is comparable to the zombie-romance film Warm Bodies (2013), which was released a year earlier and was better in almost every way. Warm Bodies’ exploration of its characters’ relationships connected with audiences, while the zombie elements complimented—rather than distracted from—its story. Perhaps Warm Bodies shows what Life After Beth could have been with a larger budget, but its director, Jonathan Levine, had a comparable level of experience with Jeff Baena at the time.
The blame for Life After Beth’s failure lands squarely at its writer/director’s feet, and I’m surprised any studio green lit another Jeff Baena film after this disaster. Life After Beth made $88,000 on a budget of $2.4 million. Yikes. You might as well flush money down the toilet. This was a rare occurrence when critics and audiences were in agreement, with a 44 percent critic rating and abysmal 30 percent audience rating on RottenTomatoes, proving once again that you need more than a quirky concept and a well-known cast to make a good film.