Life After Beth is a reasonably fun, medium-gory horror comedy that’s better before the innards hit the fan, when it’s a sad teen-breakup drama with a streak of the supernatural. Dane DeHaan is Zach, the lovelorn boy whose girlfriend, Beth (Aubrey Plaza), has just broken up with him in a way that might or might not be conclusive. (It happens before the film begins.) In any case, he believes things to be unfinished, and they’re destined to remain so after Beth dies in a freak accident. Irresolution intensifies his pain: Is he grieving for her death, their breakup, or both? What role should he play with her parents (John C. Reilly and Molly Shannon) — boyfriend or ex? Depending on whether he meets someone he likes as much, Zach could remain in that emotional twilight zone for the rest of his life. Then he spies Beth through the window of her parents’ house. She certainly doesn’t look dead.
The movie, written and directed by Jeff Baena, is never particularly subtle, and the suburban-Jewish stereotypes in the first scenes feel cheap. But inconclusiveness is a wonderful state for a black comedy, and the scenes between Zach and the resurrected Beth are sublimely creepy. She’s not quite the same person — she doesn’t remember the breakup or that she, well, died. But she’s close enough to make Zach want to return to their old life, to believe. There are rather broad hints that something’s amiss, however. Her preference for the attic. Her bad smell. Her superhuman strength. Worst of all is her sudden taste for smooth jazz.
It’s the chemistry of DeHaan and Plaza that puts the movie’s first half over. DeHaan is so hollow-eyed and cadaverous that he might be a zombie himself. And Plaza can go right up to the edge of the Jewish Princess cliché without tipping over. Her limbs are slightly out of synch, her rhythms close to the trancelike whimsical patter on the Chainsmokers’ brilliant "#SELFIE." But she’s also emotionally hungry, and the poor sap boyfriend hangs on her every strange demand. When Zach’s mother (Cheryl Hines) sets him up with another girl (the alluringly edgy Anna Kendrick), he’s visibly relieved by the relative normalcy of the scene — until Beth shows up and turns (almost literally) rabid.
Sudden jolts of thrash guitar add to excellent discordancy, and there are nice turns by Reilly; Matthew Gray Gubler as Zach’s skinny, high-strung brother (he’s like DeHaan stretched out); and Garry Marshall as Grandpa. But the last section of Life After Beth is crushingly routine. It’s not just that it’s the by-now-overfamiliar comic zombie splatter. It’s that throws the movie off course. It’s a cop-out. The gold standard for this sort of thing is Shaun of the Dead, where Edgar Wright and Simon Pegg managed to use zombie mayhem to deepen our understanding of the existing relationships. This is more like, “Forget all that other stuff. Let’s eat some flesh!” The effect is oddly bloodless.