If the zombie scenario feels as if it’s reached critical mass, it’s because, to quote Zone One, “at their core, Last Night stories were all the same: They came, we died, I started running.” Colson Whitehead’s novel, a zombie story about post-apocalyptic cleanup duty in lower Manhattan, transcends that core by treating the pandemic at its center, in part, at least, as an allegory for gentrification. Even more provocative is BBC’s seriocomic In the Flesh, which strongly echoes the end of the Troubles in Northern Ireland in its depiction of zombies returning to their fractured communities and living as haunted copies of their former selves. Jeff Baena’s Life After Beth, alas, isn’t quite so ambitious, content as it is to riff on the familiar conventions of teenage romance, and in a manner so uninspired as to make Warm Bodies seem toothy by comparison.
Though molded from the most rudimentary of my-first-zombie-movie playsets, Life After Beth initially brings to mind moth-eaten tales of suburban ennui like Garden State and Running with Scissors, though it’s less cloyingly framed than the former and less strident in its emotional tenor than the latter. Through a series of awkwardly clipped scenes, the prototypically moody Zach (Dane DeHaan) half-heartedly goes through the motions of mourning his girlfriend Beth, who died after incurring a snake bite while hiking in the woods. At home, no one understands him: His brother, Kyle (Matthew Gray Gubler), is a gun-toting security officer with delusions of grandeur, who spazzes out with the brio of a sitcom actor wanting for his own spinoff series, while his parents are such cartoon squares one imagines they share Ken and Barbie’s anatomical makeup. And just as Zach begins to inch his way back to normalcy after bonding with Beth’s curiously grieving father, Maury (John C. Reilly), over chess and a joint, he’s dealt an emotional wallop by the revelation that Beth (Aubrey Plaza) has returned from the grave.
Life After Beth is uninterested in rationalizing Beth’s return, though it does attempt to build an ultimately meaningless mythos around zombies being drawn to attics and smooth jazz. After Maury and Gennie (Molly Shannon) stop trying to keep Zach away from their daughter, the story shifts to their struggle to prevent him from telling Beth that she’s dead. There are potential resonances to this scenario, as Maury and Gennie, in their attempts to keep Beth’s rising a secret from their community, recall parents who irrationally overprotect their daughters from the advances of sexually rapacious boys. But, given that this is a world where Beth appears to be the first corpse to ever rehumanize, this scenario doesn’t gain any traction, as Maury and Gennie seem driven by an almost preternatural sense of the horror their daughter will become if they stopped shielding her from the truth.
Plaza brings alternately deadpan and shit-faced conviction to a role that seems dictated by the whims of a screenplay that insists Beth must turn into a monster simply because she has to—or because she’s a girl. That smooth jazz soothes this savage beast is an amusing touch, but it’s also symptomatic of the film’s literal-minded sense of humor and sexist purview. Throughout, Beth transforms not so much into a rotted version of her former self as she does into a cringing caricature of the crazy ex-girlfriend, breaking windows with her herculean strength, setting a lifeguard stand on fire, even lashing out at cute-as-a-button Anna Kendrick. Conveniently, the Up in the Air star appears to remind us that Life After Beth’s zombie scenario is ultimately beside the point—that Baena’s film, at heart, is just another overly familiar story of a boy struggling to get over his first love and who’s rewarded for his troubles with a less volatile replacement model.