Zombies, jokes lack vigor in ‘Beth’

by Andrew Kingsley | 11/2/14 6:11pm

Any film that designates itself a “zom-rom-com,” or zombie romantic comedy, must suffer from an identity crisis. To wed the gratuitously overused zombie and rom-com genres is parody itself, and it’s not surprising that such a film’s audiences might try to divorce the viewing experience from their minds.

Jeff Baena’s “Life After Beth” (2014), which screened at the Loew Auditorium on Halloween evening, falls right into this trap. Though the film tries to distance itself from the rom-com genre — the “this-will-be-different” neon signs come up early — it plays like a sick joke, where the actors enjoy themselves while audience members endure their stupidity.

The film begins at the end, the end of Zach (Dane DeHaan) and Beth’s (Aubrey Plaza) relationship. Hiking alone, Beth dies from a snake bite, throwing Zach into a classic “woe is me,” post-relationship maelstrom. For some inexplicable reason, however, Beth comes back to life as a zombie and haunts the screen for an hour like someone who watched a “Walking Dead” episode and said, “Hey, I can do that!”

Though I’m not sure what would make an actor a “good zombie,” Plaza certainly isn’t one. She acts like the girl from “The Exorcist” (1973), but the green vomit is just her speaking. Without her “Parks and Recreation” deadpan, Plaza seems lost, unsure of how to convincingly play the funny, romantic zombie.

But who wouldn’t? Plaza’s character bludgeons viewers with over-the-top moaning and brainatarianism, making audiences wonder if this is a spoof. It’s like the zombie version of “The Room” (2003): she’s so bad, she’s almost good.

The film’s wheels begin to fall off when the dead come back to life, creating an apocalyptic wasteland that somehow only Zach can navigate safely. Zach hurtles down a rabbit hole into a bewildering nightmare. Instead of Red Queens, Jabberwocks and Mad Hatters, audiences following his adventure suffer through generic zombies recycled from any run-of-the-mill living dead film. Even the funny zombies, Zach’s senile grandfather and incompetent mailman, fall victim to Baena’s choice to turn the film into something like a headhunting zombie massacre video game. At this point, rom and com take back seats to the zom — and the zom bombs.

Sadly, so does the com. Baena is so anxious to make audiences laugh that he forces every character to act awkwardly or foolishly. Yet audiences become so used to the forced and campy lines that the laughs dry up quickly. Generally, the “straight guy” in comedy is the serious person who reacts to the absurdity of a routine, thus grounding it in reality. But Baena cuts the straight guy, shifting the comedic into overdrive.

Luckily, the rom isn’t so lifeless. Underneath all this absurdity is a nugget of truth that brings the film back to earth — a break-up is a death of sorts, and even as lovers try to bury the past, that person can become a kind of zombie. Baena plays this out, having Plaza play a clingy, paranoid girlfriend who uses Zach like life support. Only when Zach ditches her for good does the world return to normal.

The zombie genre has exploded this past decade. Television’s “The Walking Dead” and videogames like “Left For Dead” and “Resident Evil” are nearly unrecognizable from the genre’s humble beginnings — “Night of the Living Dead” (1968). “Life After Beth” tries to find its niche here but combines the worst tropes from romantic comedies and zombie films.

The film goes one for three tackling zom, rom and com, but the success of the romance plot is buried beneath the shtick and generic zombies. Ultimately, “Life After Beth” is a zombie of a film — it brings old themes to life only to kill them with its self-conscious brand of comedy.

Rating: 4.5/10

“Life After Beth” played at the Loew on Halloween night at 7:00 p.m. It was recently released on DVD.