There are some things zombies are innately good at, such as tearing apart flesh with their bare hands, and other things they’re quite terrible at, like being sexy. Sorry to say, but your typical zombie just doesn’t have the requisite skill set for seduction; being a good conversationalist or not actively decomposing in front of your eyes ranks low in their abilities.
Thus it’s a bit strange that we’re seeing our second “zom-rom-com” in as many years, with at least a third (“Pride and Prejudice and Zombies”) in the works. Writer-director Jeff Baena offers a gender-flip of last year’s “Warm Bodies” in “Life After Beth,” an emotionally inert, tonally scattershot romance that’s impossible to root for.
Twenty-something Zach (Dane DeHaan) has just embarked on the first stage of grief, after the sudden death of his ex-girlfriend Beth (Aubrey Plaza) in a hiking accident, when he discovers that she might not be gone after all. Furious that Beth and her parents (John C. Reilly and Molly Shannon) may have faked her death, Zach storms into their home to discover that his former S.O. has come back from the dead — and that she has no recollection of the break-up she initiated.
Zach’s delighted at this second chance at their relationship, of course, even though Beth has clearly changed, and not for the better. Her current incarnation is nightmarish by girlfriend standards: she’s violent, dumb, hyper-emotional, uncommunicative, unhygienic, and has godawful taste in music. (The smooth-jazz genre is apparently propped up by the undead.)
When Zach leans in for a kiss, he discovers an angry red wound on her thigh under her adorable white dress. But it’s the mortician’s staples across her chest that convince him they don’t have much of a future anymore. He’s alive, after all, while she’s not only undead but also getting hungrier.
Bodily decay is just an apt a metaphor as any for a relationship that’s ending its run. But to find meaning in loss, you have to know what you’re losing. As Beth progresses deeper into grunting, slurring zombie-dom, Plaza shows us what a hilarious monster she can be (while providing a fun complement to DeHaan’s wounded earnestness).
But the “Parks and Rec” co-star never gets the chance to be human. It’s hard to know what Zach originally saw in Beth because we never get to see it, either; their romance is as superficially rendered as a pencil drawing of a heart. The couple’s eventual declarations of eternal love have all the emotional resonance of a fart.
Plaza is the very definition of a limited actress, but she’s surprisingly game in her slow transformation into a bloodied, muddied beast. Baena gives her his better lines (“What do you want from me, Zach? I’m a fucking zombie. Zombies eat guys.”), as well as the rare opportunity for a beautiful woman to slather red goo on her face, smear dirt over her dress, profess to having cannibalized a fairly prominent character, and still expect her boyfriend to trip all over her. (That’s probably easier when you look like Plaza.)
Beth, it turns out, isn’t the town’s only resurrection. First the mailman runs amok, then the line cook at the local diner, then some long-dead schmoes who used to own Zach’s parents’ house. The apocalypse seems nigh, and yet Zach pays so little attention to it that it ends up making the zombie takeover seem inconsequential and his lovesickness implausible and idiotic.
It doesn’t help that the other characters, like Zach’s horrifically callous parents (Cheryl Hines and Paul Reiser), would make for satisfying zombie food after mocking their son at the family dinner table for mourning his girlfriend. There are too few real humans in “Life After Beth,” resulting in a lack of both brains and heart.