The zombie bubble has burst. Not that Life After Beth is the harbinger to end nearly a decade’s worth of zombie interest. Instead, it’s reflective of a general problem found in film and media on the limited direction one can take with a zombie picture. There have been worthy contemporary additions to the subsection of horror films - the genre readjustment of Edgar Wright’s Shaun of the Dead or Paco Plaza and Jaume Balagueró formally rigorous REC - but films like World War Z, Warm Bodies, and now Life After Beth lack a sense of resonance. It takes a concentrated vision to realize a sophisticated version of the impending zombie apocalypse and unfortunately the aforementioned films are weightless, flighty, and ultimately forgettable.
Life After Beth ascribes to the Shaun of the Dead-mold of zombiedom where comic overturns overwhelm dramatic crescendos. And with a cast that includes the comically attuned Aubrey Plaza, Anna Kendrick, John C. Reilly, and Molly Shannon it’s clear and understandable where Jeff Baena’s ambitions rest. Unfortunately, the film’s comic inclinations aren’t particularly nuanced or even funny.
The film’s problems are twofold. There’s the general aimlessness and clichéd despondency of its locale - a nameless suburban community where characters are all a little off key. Perpetually donning black, Dane DeHaan’s Zach never quite belongs in this community built on sunshine. But there’s not much that the film offers to highlight this gap between man and community beyond superficial visual cues. The film opens in a supermarket where Zach attempts to buy black napkins for a funeral procession. His brief interaction with the supermarket attendant plays as an empty and noticeably off-kilter piece of dialogue that leads nowhere and does nothing. These types of scenes are littered throughout Life After Beth.
The second issue stems from how the narrative is structured. The film is built around three principle events: Zach’s knowledge that Beth (Plaza) has been resurrected, Zach delegating with Beth’s parents (Reilly and Shannon) on whether or not to let the amnesic Beth know that she’s dead, and finally Zach making sense of a relationship that was doomed from the start. The problem is that Baena does not give his audience an understanding of what Beth was like before her death. Rather, her vitriolic behavior only reaffirms Zach’s hesitation to continue the relationship. Whether this is a byproduct of her newfound zombie status or simply an extension of her old self is never clear.
Of course, this is all an allegory for the guilt that Zach feels having lost his girlfriend but not feeling especially bad for the loss. As he mentions throughout most of the film, Beth’s death came at a time when the two were fighting. His attempts to right the wrongs of their relationship were all half-hearted attempts to soothe his own guilt. Unfortunately, a better film would’ve called him out on this selfish shit. Instead, he rides off with a new girlfriend (Kendrick), guilt successfully subdued.