There's a moment in Life After Beth where Aubrey Plaza, in full-on zombie everything, is chained to an oven and screaming her face off while her boyfriend (Dane DeHaan) asks her to go on a nice, sweet hike. That's the sort of twisted romantic tone Life After Beth flirts with throughout -- a funny, dark and oddly heartwarming look at the complexities of dating a girl who's slowly turning into a zombie.
When Beth (Plaza) dies suddenly from a snake bite while out hiking alone, her boyfriend Zach is beyond distraught. He clings to Beth's parents (John C. Reilly, Molly Shannon) and Beth's stuff to keep his connection to his former girlfriend going for as long as possible. But not long after she dies, something crazy happens: Beth comes back home. Freaked out and completely bewildered, Beth's parents demand that she not leave the house, while Zach rekindles his romance with a girl who's clearly not right. Soon the neighborhood's other dead people begin mysteriously rising from their graves, and as each day passes, Beth's zombification evolves, forcing Zach to stage the most difficult breakup of his life.
Life After Beth really works when in its most intimate moments, exploring themes of love and loss, and how to accept the fact that you may not be able to say everything you want to say to a loved one before they pass away. Making it so Plaza's transformation is gradual gives us that rare zombie you actually invest in. A zombie you remember. Not because of a great kill or a weird appearance, but because you spend more time with her and evolve with the character. A lot of it really works, too, as this upscale gated community full of neurotic Jews is forced to confront a potential zombie apocalypse (I particularly liked a bit about freezing all the bagels).
The film never gets too big for its own good, though, which is what keeps it refreshing. It's more about the relationship and not the world ending. While a subplot involving Anna Kendrick as "the other woman" felt forced and unnecessary, there are great moments between her and DeHaan, who's just stoked to hang out with a girl who isn't dead and doesn't smell like garbage. Both Plaza and DeHaan step out of what we're used to seeing them as, and in the process turn out a couple of terrific performances, especially Plaza who's consistently adjusting as her zombie makeover grows even more gruesome.
We've never really seen Plaza rise above a very specific dry tone, but in this she's screaming, cursing, punching walls and walking through glass doors. Similarly with DeHaan, who sheds a bit of his dark, brooding, creepishness in order to play a regular dude with a wounded heart. It also doesn't hurt that they're surrounded by terrific character actors, from John C. Reilly and Molly Shannon to Cheryl Hines and Paul Reiser, as well as Matthew Gray Gubler, who plays DeHaan's older brother, a dumpy security guard who longs to be a badass.
The real highlight though is Aubrey Plaza, and when she's on-screen experimenting with the unpredictable nature of what it means to be a zombie, Life After Beth is a gorishly entertaining watch and a pretty awesome date movie. Unless your date's a zombie, then they probably won't get it. Yeah, they won't like this one much. But all the nonzombies should totally have at it.
Life After Beth is currently screening at the 2014 Sundance Film Festival and its theatrical release is TBD. For more coverage of this year's Sundance Film Festival, hit up this page.
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