film review: life after beth
In 2003, director Edgar Wright and actor Simon Pegg presented us their new take on the classic zombie genre with their film Shaun of the Dead. Their ingenious combination of a traditional Zombie apocalypse film with the conventions of a romantic comedy was a fresh and thrilling concept, and hence, the Rom-Zom-Com was born. Unfortunately, the subsequent wave of Twilight-esqe human/vampire teen romance flicks — like the sub-par Warm Bodies from last year — has somewhat tainted the genre.
Earlier this month I had the pleasure of seeing Jeff Baena’s Life After Beth at the Melbourne International Film Festival. This film is a refreshing addition to the Rom-Zom-Com family and it further re-invents the genre by throwing a very indie vibe into the mix.
The film follows Zach (Dane Dehaan), a twenty-something who is left shocked after the sudden death of his girlfriend, Beth (Aubrey Plaza), during a hiking trip. He goes into mourning, moping around his sunny suburban neighbourhood in all black get-ups and visiting Beth’s grieving parents.
Zach soon suspects that Beth’s folks (played brilliantly by John C. Riley and Molly Shannon) may be hiding something and that his beloved Beth may not be quite so dead after all. Sure enough, he discovers that Beth is alive and has no memory of her supposed death. Her parents are convinced that she is a miracle resurrected from the dead, and initially Zach is simply thrilled to know he has a second chance with her.
But what starts off as a blissfully reunion soon turns into something evil, as Beth become less and less human, and more and more like the undead creature she actually is. Zach discovers that Beth may not be the only zombie in town when more undead start appearing out of nowhere and the real chaos starts to take over.
With a penchant for smooth jazz and dirt, these zombies aren’t so much terrifying but rather hilarious. The film writer/director Jeff Baena’s debut, and he manages to effectively combine sight gags and witty dialogue to pull the majority of his laughs; even if some of them fall short a bit, the charm of Beth and Zach’s love story is enough to make the film very, very funny and incredibly endearing.
Indie-icons Dehaan and Plaza are beyond perfect in their roles of “doomed lovers”: Dehaan uses his dramatic talent and DiCaprio-like boyish charm to paint Zach as a lost soul, and Plaza – best known for her role as the grouchy April on the TV’s Parks and Recreation – gets all the best lines and funniest gags as the demonic dream-girl Beth.
From a feminist perspective, Life After Beth isn’t revolutionary but nor does it offend. It’s interesting to see traditional gender roles switched; rather than presenting us with a Beauty and the Beast tale where the man is the Beauty and the woman is the Beast, this film turns the tale around. The film could also be read as an anti-Manic-Pixie-Dream-Girl tale; Beth – the stereotyped MPDG in question – is the reason why Zach’s life has meaning and purpose, but this film turns the dream into a nightmare. But then again, we never really get to meet the “real” Beth so we honestly have no idea what her real personality was before she died and returned as a zombie.
It’s a fascinating idea, combining romance with something as grotesque as zombies. I mean, they’re not very sexy are they? Soon we’ll get to see what the Rom-Zom-Com looks like when mixed with a period drama, true Austen-style. That’s right, Pride and Prejudice and Zombies is in the works and I’m sure it’s going to be spectacular. But for now, without much competition, Life After Beth is surely the best addition to the genre since Shaun of the Dead.