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Dead or Alive 

Yes, we're all sick of zombies at this point, but the biting satire in "Life After Birth" will win you over

Dating is hard enough.

Dating while one of you slowly turns into a full blown, flesh-eating zombie is next to impossible, something the quirky horror comedy "Life After Beth" hilariously explores.

The film starts with a brief glimpse of Beth Slocum (Aubrey Plaza) as she hikes alone. Shortly thereafter, we find out Beth is dead, the victim of a snakebite. Zach Orfman (Dane DeHaan) mourns the loss, hanging out with her slightly odd parents (John C. Reilly and Molly Shannon), playing chess and smoking some pot for relief. They reminisce about Beth and, while packing her stuff, Zach grabs a scarf and wears it in the summertime in remembrance of his lost love.

Then ... something funny happens. The parents won't let him back in the house, and he grabs glances of somebody he thinks is Beth through the windows. He eventually makes his way into the home to discover that Beth is alive. Or is she?

At first, the Slocums believe their daughter has been resurrected, but a recurring skin problem and her empty grave convinces otherwise. Beth and Zach, who were experiencing some relationship difficulties before her death, have rekindled their love as if nothing was ever wrong. But, as so often happens in "second tries," problems once again surface and the second time around proves worse than the first. These problems are, of course, exacerbated by zombie Beth's tendency to eat men on the front lawn.

Writer-director Jeff Baena comes up with some funny additions to the zombie genre, including the notions that zombies like attics and smooth jazz for their soothing qualities. Shooting on a miniscule budget, Baena ingeniously focuses on the Slocums and Orfman's for the majority of the film. It's not until long-dead grandpa Orfman (a very funny Garry Marshall) stops by the house that it is evident a zombie apocalypse is occurring outside of their doors. It's no surprise that Baena is also the guy who wrote "I Heart Huckabees." He's a bit of a nut.

Plaza, who is normally a deadpan genius, gets a chance to go a little crazy in this one. In the midst of the madness, she gives us a rather touching portrayal of a young woman unaware of her maladies and just wanting to have fun with her boyfriend. When the zombie characteristics fully kick in, and Plaza is buried underneath decomposing makeup, she goes full rabid. It's one of the better, multi-dimensional zombie performances you are likely to see.

I have made no mystery of my general disdain for DeHaan. Hated him in "Chronicle," and really hated him as Green Goblin in "The Amazing Spider-Man 2." Alas, he's not only perfectly fine for the role of the confused Zach, but actually really good. He proves himself masterful at being funny when the humor isn't obvious. As offbeat and strange as this movie is, this turns out to be one of the more natural, easy on the senses performances DeHaan has delivered to date (His reactions to Beth's need for smooth jazz are priceless).

Reilly and Shannon will surely stand as one of the year's better mom and dad teams. Reilly is especially good as a clueless dad who lives in a sort of denial state after the death of his daughter, then becomes somewhat of a domineering dad after she returns.

Paul Reiser and Cheryl Hines are also good as Zach's ditzy parents, while Matthew Gray Gubler steals every scene he's in as Zach's mean older brother. Anna Kendrick is typically sweet as a more viable, fully alive Zach love interest.

Much of the madness that occurs in the film goes down with smooth jazz on the soundtrack, and the effect is hilarious (Chuck Mangione's "Feels So Good" has never been put to such great use). Baena and his crew have concocted a terrific soundtrack beyond the smooth jazz that includes Black Rebel Motorcycle Club and Brian Eno.

Baena, thankfully, relies on biting satire rather than biting arms to make "Life After Beth" a worthy genre entry, perhaps its best since "Shaun of the Dead."

More by Bob Grimm

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