Tag Archives: Zombies

Life After Beth

Life After Beth is weird and confused and, despite a game Dane DeHaan and Aubrey Plaza, sadly not very good.

by Callum Petch (Twitter: @CallumPetch)

life after beth 2Life After Beth’s first mistake is showing us pretty much nothing prior to Beth’s death.  There is a short little pair of shots of Beth (Aubrey Plaza) on the hike where she dies, but that’s it.  So, straight off the bat, the film faces an uphill battle, as we are dropped into Zach’s (Dane DeHaan) grief with little context besides the fact that they were boyfriend and girlfriend.  Emphasis on “were” as the two had broken up with each other in the week leading up to her death.  It’s unclear as to whether this was Zach or Beth’s doing, as well, and at no point do we get an indication of their relationship prior to the events of the film outside of said break-up, and you can probably already tell the issue here.

In any case, about a week after her death, Beth rises from her grave and returns home to her alternately terrified and overjoyed parents (John C. Reilly and Molly Shannon), who keep her sheltered from the world and her condition sheltered from her for obvious reasons.  Zach, however, still grieving majorly about the whole thing, manages to force his way in and is similarly alternately terrified and overjoyed about his girlfriend being resurrected, especially since the week between the two of them breaking up and her death is conveniently hazy for her.  From there…

Well, here’s the film’s second mistake.  The premise is thin, but you can stretch it out to a 90 minute film if you work hard enough on that one bit.  Life After Beth, however, is like a magpie; it keeps getting distracted by different shiny objects and only really returns to that original idea, what should be the emotional centre of this whole crazy mess, when it looks back over at it and remembers how shiny it is.  The film also wants you to invest in Zach’s cartoonishly uncaring and one-note family, to find Beth’s dad, Maury, overly sheltering and a threat to the couple’s happiness, to also root for Zach to drop Beth and get with a just-returned childhood friend, Erica (Anna Kendrick), and to be sufficiently intrigued and worried by the fact that Beth doesn’t seem to be the only one returning from the dead to not care when that subplot hijacks the majority of the film’s last half-hour.

It’s a very confused film, and writer/director Jeff Baena’s script and direction do little to paper up those cracks.  There seems to be no real thematic through line, because the film keeps shifting focus and ideas every few minutes, so it has a slightly hypocritical bent to some parts of it – you gain no prizes for figuring out that Maury is both kinda right in sheltering Beth and that the film painting him as a villain for doing so, when the rather obsessive Zach wants her all for himself but is a hero for that, feels more than a bit selective in the morality sense.  The film seems like it’s painting Beth’s return as a second chance for Zach, as some kind of chance to right some kind of wrong he committed the first time, but that feels weird seeing as we have no idea what he may or may not have done wrong the first time, and it all gets lost in the shuffle as the film goes on and becomes more and more overcrowded.

The theme problem then gets exacerbated by the poorly developed characters.  Nobody here feels like a real believable person for various reasons.  Either they awkwardly flip-flop based on what the current scene is telling them to be (Zach), or they’re still a draft or two away from doing or being what they keep being teased to be (Maury), or they’re so cartoonishly one-dimensional and try-too-hard-to-be-quirky as to be annoying instead of entertaining (Zach’s older brother Kyle, who is a paranoid, abusive, gun-nut security officer), or they’re pointless (Erica) or wasted (Beth’s mum, Geenie), or they’re Beth herself.

Beth isn’t really a character so much as just the thing whose existence the film revolves around.  She doesn’t have any real consistency, flitting wildly between scenes, she doesn’t have much in the way of a personality, and that lack of pre-death time means there’s no baseline to measure the dead-alive Beth against.  She’s a weird blank slate that gets re-arranged into whatever the film needs her to be at whatever time, and any impression she makes is down to the always likeable Aubrey Plaza instead of herself.  And, yes, there is the weird uncomfortableness that stems from her becoming more zombie-like the angrier and, for lack of a better term, bitchier she gets.

Then there’s the issue that this comedy is lacking in laughs.  It’s not completely without them, especially when it lets Aubrey Plaza go full-zombie near its end game, but it is weirdly lacking in actual jokes.  The scenes where laughs are supposed to come kind of just ramble with no real construction until you eventually laugh at something, although I’ll be damned if I figured out what said laugh was supposed to be about 80% of the time.  Otherwise, a lot of the film is played weirdly straight but also kinda isn’t?  There are a lot of scenes that are supposed to be played for some kind of emotional resonance, but the film keeps undercutting them with its desire to be off-beat, and I found that rather distracting.  It’s especially bad during what is supposed to be the film’s big emotional climax, where whatever power a scene lacking in pre-film context could have had is immediately set on fire by having a ridiculous piece of physical comedy occur seconds after its crescendo.  It’s jarring, and not in a good way, the definite mark of a first-time director who hasn’t figured out how to juggle disparate tones yet.

None of this is to say that Life After Beth is without merit.  After all, I laughed occasionally, I was never bored, and its cast is game.  John C. Reilly is madly trying to fill in the blanks in his character, Molly Shannon is asked to Molly Shannon for 90-odd minutes and she’s more than happy to do that, Anna Kendrick literally walks into the film for about two or three scenes and is adorably charmingly amazing as per usual (yes, I have my biases, at least I admit them), whilst Aubrey Plaza is strangely withheld from large sections of the runtime but she attempts to make the most of them when she gets the chance, and I will cop to finding her full-zombie really funny.  Dane DeHaan, meanwhile, continues his post-Chronicle career path of wasting his considerable talents on films that don’t deserve them, managing to keep Zach a consistent and interesting character whilst the film is running and visibly straining to make the more dramatic scenes work.

Life After Beth, then, is a failure, but it is an interesting failure.  It’s the kind of failure where one can see where the potential for a very good and maybe even great film is located, but can also see it, in real time no less, squander said potential due to a bunch of mistakes that could have easily been sorted out.  It all comes back to that script, which is at least five-or-so drafts away from tapping that potential but, as is, is an unfocussed and rather unfinished mess.  There’s a really talented cast desperately trying to raise the material on display, but they just end up being wasted.  I was never bored, I was even fitfully entertained, but I was severely disappointed and ultimately unfulfilled.

Callum Petch’s style is wild, and you know that it still is.  Follow him on the Twitters (@CallumPetch)!

For an alternative view on Life After Beth from the Failed Critics team, you can also check out Mike’s FrightFest round-up and Carole’s views on the podcast.

Failed Critics Review: Zombie Special!

Zombies in Shaun of the DeadThe Failed Critics Review is packed full of moaning, shuffling, bad-smelling, and barely sentient beings this week…and we also talk about zombies!

James reports back on the 6th annual UK Festival of Zombie Culture, including the world première of the HD restoration of Zombie Flesh Eaters.

There’s a heated discussion on what constitutes a zombie movie, and whether the zombies that run are proper zombies. And don’t even get James started on Danny Boyle’s view that 28 Days Later isn’t a zombie film.

Then in Triple Bill the critics choose their favourite zombie films of all time.

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UK Festival of Zombie Culture – Report

The 6th annual UK Festival of Zombie Culture (and in true zombie film tradition it has another title it goes by – The Day of the Undead) took place, as it always has, at the Phoenix Arts Centre in Leicester. More than ever before, this year’s programme had a distinctly British feel to it, with four of the features (and many of the shorts on show) being home-grown affairs.

Scattered around the venue were numerous opportunities to meet the authors of zombie novels, buy various zombie games and DVDs, and even get yourself made-up to look like one of the undead horde. The real draw was the programme of zombie films on display in the state-of-the-art cinema.

First up was the world première of the HD restoration of Lucio Fulci’s Zombi 2, known in the UK as ‘Zombie Flesh Eaters’. This unofficial sequel to George A. Romero’s Dawn of the Dead has been restored for a Blu-ray release (to be released next month), and it certainly looks fantastic. The images are clear, without ever looking too clean.

As a big fan of Dawn of the Dead, I went into this expecting a lesser film – and was actually very pleasantly surprised. Having seen some Italian giallo films recently I have started to get used to seeing dubbing in films, and if I’m honest – I wasn’t here to see realism. There’s plenty of melodramatic acting, and the musical cues almost parody themselves – but the real meat (if you’ll excuse the pun) is in the zombie effects, and the set-pieces.

Not only do the zombies look genuinely like decomposing corpses (sadly, many modern zombie films seem to think a bit of white make-up and a bloody chin will do) – but there are some genuinely horrific scenes of violence here, including the worst scene featuring an eyeball since Un Chien Andalou.

If you are a fan of Romero’s films this is a must for your collection. Actually, this is a must-own for anyone who likes the idea of a zombie fighting a shark.

Next up were a number of short-films, or varying quality. Ross Shepherd’s Victorian Undead certainly looked good, and would make a nice scene in a longer feature. However, as a short film it failed to convey much of a story or any characterisation. A local film made in Loughborough called The End also showed some promise, but the lack of a budget showed when the zombies finally appeared on-screen.

Velvet Road was my pick of the shorts, both stylistically and thematically head and shoulders above the rest of the unofficial competition. Set in the racially-charged US-south in the 1960s it certainly owned a visual debt to The Walking Dead.

The comedy side of the zombie genre was also well-represented. Smush, a short from the team that made last year’s Deadheads, was a rather sweet story of a young girl befriending a hungry zombie. We were also treated to a couple of episodes of  Bumbloods – a four-part web-series about a couple of room-mates trying to survive a zombie apocalypse. What it lacks in budget and story-telling, it makes up with in some great jokes and a home-made charm.

The headline film of the shorts section was Muralim (Poisoned), the first ever state-funded genre film from Israel. A ‘zomedy’ in the style of Shaun of the Dead, it tells the story of army base gardener (and son of a war hero) Danny who has to face down a horde of zombie soldiers on during Passover, while trying to win the heart of his high-school sweetheart. As well as being very funny, it is also an interesting exploration on the way the military can ‘poison’ the minds of soldiers into becoming a homogeneous group of mindless beings who follow orders without question. Deep.

Next up was new British zombie film Before Dawn directed by, and starring Paddy from the UK soap opera Emmerdale (Dominic Brunt, who introduced the screening), and his real-life wife Joanne Marshall.

It tells the story of an estranged couple getting away for a weekend in the country to make one last go of their marriage. Then, obviously, some zombies turn up.

The kitchen-sink set-up of the film actually works really well (as you’d expect from a soap opera veteran), and Brunt and Marshall are believable and sympathetic.

The fact that Brunt has gone for running zombies was always going to upset a traditionalist like me. It’s not that I don’t see them as ‘proper’ zombies, it’s just that I don’t find these modern zombies to be as scary as the shuffling hordes we know as ‘Romero Zombies’. I like the changing power dynamic you get in a film featuring the shuffling zombies. The fact that one or two of them would be reasonably easy to repel, and it’s only when you start getting overwhelmed that you realise the true horror of the monster.

Like most zombie films that don’t aim for all-out comedy, this is a pretty relentlessly depressing film. It’s a good-looking and well-performed piece though, although Brunt’s inexperience shows in the action/fight scenes which are more confusing in the shooting/editing than terrifying.

Before the next screening we were treated to a conversation with Charlie Higson, talking about his ‘The Enemy’ series of books for young adults. He admitted that he felt a fraud as the monsters in his books weren’t strictly zombies in the ‘risen from the dead’ mould, but rather an infected populace as in 28 Days Later. Of course, as he pointed out, I think we have come to accept that the definition of zombie in popular culture has changed to encompass a range of ‘changed humans’ in an end-of-the-world scenario. Higson is a friendly and engaging fellow, with a good-line in stories of scaring his own children.

Up next was The Eschatrilogy, an anthology of stories with a linking narrative arc set within the zombie genre. I was really looking forward to this, and I was sadly very disappointed. The opening 10 minutes of the film looks glorious, and the concept of a ‘watcher’ collecting stories from the zombie apocalypse intrigued me. The problem is that the film’s £15,000 budget is massively outstripped by the film-makers ambitions. Normally I would be able to overlook this, and even applaud it – but when one of the short-cuts they have chosen to make is in the acting department I just can’t get on-board. Nothing is likely to put me off of a film faster than amateur acting. The type of acting you see in the adverts that candidates in The Apprentice make. It didn’t help that the end of the film was cut short by technical problems with the Blu-ray. Unfortunately I don’t think I missed much.

Gangsters, Guns, and ZombiesFinally (for me anyway) was Gangsters, Guns, and Zombies. This low-budget film is basically ‘Lock Stock’ meets ’28 Days Later’. It’s derivative and unoriginal, but it does its best to win the audience over with some genuinely funny lines and some entertaining and sympathetic characters. One I think I might be tempted to watch again.

At this point I was zombied-out. I had to forgo Cockney’s Versus Zombies after 12 straight hours watching the undead, and I applaud anyone who made it to the very end. I really enjoyed my first UK Festival of Zombie Culture though, and I am sure I’ll be back next year.