It's fitting, isn't it, that Aubrey Plaza should play a zombie. The bone-dry comedienne who arrived on the scene in Judd Apatow's Funny People (2009) and became a household name shortly thereafter as April Ludgate in NBC's Parks and Recreation seems predisposed to the vacant stare and man-eating tendencies of the undead.
In Life After Beth, opening this Friday at the Cedar Lee, Plaza is Beth Slocum, a twentysomething who has come back to life under the fog of "mysterious circumstances." And though co-star Dane DeHaan (most recently the pouty, lesioned Harry Osborne in the rebooted Amazing Spiderman franchise) gives it his level best as Beth's confused, mourning boyfriend, the film is a failed attempt to blend the humor and horror inherent in the zombie genre — Shaun of the Dead covered those bases a decade ago — and give it the indie-rom-com treatment. It's more like a really elaborate music video than a feature film, and likewise has the narrative legs to sustain three (as opposed to, like, 90) minutes of screentime.
Here is the angsty Zachary (DeHaan), installed poolside outside his California home, dressed in the total black of a somber goth. Less than a week removed from the death of his girlfriend, with whom he was "having troubles," Zachary abandons his own non-supportive family (Father: Paul Reiser; Mother: Cheryl Hines; Brother: Criminal Minds' Matthew Gray Gubler) and seeks the companionship of Beth's weirdly non-aggrieved parents Maury (John C. Reilly) and Geenie (Molly Shannon), neither of whose comedic gifts are deployed or even noticed in a meaningful, scripted way.
There's an awful lot of shouting once Zach gets the boot from Slocum family affairs and learns that Beth has returned, a Beth who is slowly but surely disintegrating into full-blown zombiehood. You get the sense that rookie director Jeff Baena (who also wrote the screenplay) wanted everyone to "play it straight." DeHaan is super sincere in his outrage and befuddlement and attempts to fall in love all over again, notwithstanding Beth's new (in)humanity, but the story is so outlandish and ill-defined that the fact anyone's taking it even halfway seriously is pretty embarrassing.
The third act is a preposterous bloodbath, complete with the return of long-dead ancestors and notable locals (all of whom, in this iteration of undeadness, begin as sentient, if gangrenous, humans with memory lapses), Walking Dead-like looted grocery stores, and a few dangling storylines which don't really bear mentioning. Short of some urgent, culture-based speculation about a Haitian housekeeper, there is no attempt to explain the cause of these erratic resurrections. And the easy retreat to epidemic-scale chaos precludes the interpretation of the film as one grand metaphor about nasty breakups. Swing a miss, here.