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When the movie “Life After Beth” premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in January, critics and audiences in Park City, Utah, received it as a perfectly cute indie movie with a couple of likable leads in up-and-comers Aubrey Plaza and Dane DeHaan.

DeHaan plays the boyfriend of Plaza’s Beth, a sweet 19-year-old who is killed by a snake bite and then comes back from the dead. In other words, just your average boy-meets-girl-turned-zombie rom-com. A small distributor picked it up and that seemed to be the end of that — even with a limited theatrical run, it was unlikely to find a mainstream audience. In the time since Sundance, though, the already rising profiles of Plaza and DeHaan exploded thanks in part to the imminent conclusion of her TV show “Parks and Recreation,” and his performance as the Green Goblin in “The Amazing Spider-Man 2.”

This story first appeared in the August 1, 2014 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.

So when the movie was screened Wednesday night at the Crosby Street Hotel in New York, it seemed like one of those rare Hollywood moments when a tiny movie got a shot to break out thanks to the rising tide lifting its two young stars. (The movie is already on DirecTV and will hit theaters Aug. 15.)

Though the part of Beth seems tailor-made for a comedienne like Plaza, who is known for her deadpan delivery, she said she’d never encountered anything quite like it.

“I thought it was one of the best scripts I’d ever read,” she said.

“Life After Beth” stands apart from all of the other zombie movies that have or are soon to hit theaters because it comes from the writer of “I Heart Huckabees,” Jeff Baena. Like that 2004 film, it defies easy classification — it is both a broad slapstick comedy and a poignant romance.

“The whole movie is a metaphor for a bad breakup. So I connected to it on a very human level. You don’t normally get to see a zombie movie that’s so personal,” Plaza said.

For Baena, who is making his debut as a director, the screening was a happy conclusion to a project that at one point looked dead on arrival. He originally finished the screenplay in 2003.

“We got so close to making it, it was about to happen,” he said, and then it didn’t. The following year, “I Heart Huckabees” came out to mixed reviews. Ten years later, he picked up the zombie script again and made it last summer with Francis Ford Coppola’s production company, American Zoetrope.

What was it that prevented him from making the movie the first time? Were zombies not hot property back then?

“I was just discouraged and I felt it was better to have a fresh start instead of trying force it,” he said. “I think it was easier to let it go, then somehow it came back.”

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