Enjoy the wordplay in the title, because that’s as witty as the horror comedy Life After Beth ever gets. There’s a woman named Beth (Aubrey Plaza) who turns into a zombie, and… that’s it, basically. For some reason, first-time director Jeff Baena, whose sole previous credit was co-writing the screenplay for David O. Russell’s magnificently nutty I Heart Huckabees, didn’t put any more thought or effort into the premise than that, and he’s cast two lead actors—Dane DeHaan plays Beth’s befuddled boyfriend, Zach—who lack the ability to invent funny material in the absence of specific funny lines to deliver. Consequently, the film just kind of sits there, gradually escalating a zombie apocalypse and hoping that having the zombies retain a smidgen of humanity as they turn homicidal will somehow automatically yield hilarity and poignancy.
Baena’s first odd, unsatisfying choice is to begin the story with Beth already dead. There’s a brief, cryptic prologue showing her alive, lost in the woods—she gets bitten by a poisonous snake, it’s later revealed—but this tells us nothing about her; when she reappears shortly after the funeral, having clawed her way out of the grave, there’s no way to gauge whether she’s any different, personality-wise. She does suffer from retrograde amnesia, and her parents (John C. Reilly and Molly Shannon), who are thrilled to have her back and not inclined to ask questions, insist that Zach not discomfit her by telling her that she’d died. Eventually, however, Beth’s violent mood swings and desire to snack on people make the truth self-evident, and she turns out to be only one of many newly reanimated corpses. Will Zach find the strength to put a bullet in her head, as his militaristic brother (Matthew Gray Gubler) insists that he must?
That quandary has been played for real pathos many times in the past (see Brendan Gleeson’s role in 28 Days Later for a superb example), but the relationship between Beth and Zach—which was apparently on its last legs before she dropped dead, though, again, we don’t see that—never feels credible enough to generate any real emotion. While Plaza makes Beth suitably hostile as the zombie instincts take over, she never quite conveys who this woman had been beforehand, and DeHaan (Chronicle, The Amazing Spider-Man 2) is himself too intense a screen presence to embody Zach’s everyman confusion. That wouldn’t matter much if Life After Beth were a laugh riot, but Baena’s only inspired idea is to have the zombies inexplicably be passionate about smooth jazz. The dialogue is entirely functional—weird, since Huckabees is notably verbose—and efforts to depict a full-scale zombie outbreak from Zach’s limited perspective lack the formal cleverness Edgar Wright brought to the same idea early in Shaun Of The Dead. Even Anna Kendrick, who turns up briefly as a replacement love interest for Zach, is given virtually nothing to do. Like a zombie, the movie just shuffles along slowly, searching blindly for the brains it doesn’t possess.