Joe Dante is one of those directors you wish would get more work. At a time when any semblance of identity or creativity in blockbuster filmmaking is being increasingly calculated, focus-tested and formula-driven out of existence, Dante at his best brings a spirit of gleeful, unpredictable anarchism, a joy at throwing away the rulebook that is both very much his own and the product of his mentorship at the hands of the great B-movie maestro, Roger Corman.
Burying The Ex sounds like ideal Dante material, concerning a young horror buff, Max, struggling in his relationship with a controlling girlfriend, Evelyn, only for her to be hit by a bus on the day he finally decides to break up with her, then come back from the dead in zombified form just as he moves on and meets a kindred spirit from a nearby ice cream parlour. Unfortunately, despite all the premise’s potential for Dante’s brand of gunk-splattered cartoon chaos, he struggles to bring any life to an uninspired, pedestrian script that feels more like the extended pilot for a middling network sitcom called So I Dated A Zombie than a comeback cinematic outing for a great genre director.
Burying The Ex
Directors: Joe Dante
Release Date: June 19th, 2015
The movie is rated R, specifically for sexual content, partial nudity, some horror violence, and language. All of that may be technically true – the ‘nudity’ is especially partial – but far from any degree that one might expect to trouble the censors were this a higher budget release, backed by a more influential major studio. There’s plenty of blood, but mostly used to cover faces rather than douse the walls, while a brain-eating scene is edited in such a way that any real semblance of gore is restricted to quick flashes. Dante’s affection for discharging large quantities of boldly coloured gloop is satisfied by the zombified Evelyn projectile-puking embalming fluid all over the terrified Max, but played strictly for laughs – none too effectively, it should be said, making a jarring tonal shift amid one of many lackadaisical, drawn out dialogue scenes that should be more fun and energetic considering the material being covered – and hardly the sort of thing to turn away from. It’s one of the tamest R-rated movies for a long time and the feeling pervades that the rating gives the movie’s horror bona fides more credibility than they deserve.
Part of that is surely a result of the low budget, which leads to a significant number of scenes taking place in Max’s front room. Dante had great fun contrasting the safety of suburban decorum with the ravages of the supernatural in Gremlins, but Alan Trezza’s script denies him the chance to really dig into what zombified havoc Evelyn is capable of unleashing on Max’s slow-paced hipster existence beyond one bout of vomiting and a handful of demonstrations of super-strength. In fact, there’s a real argument that she does more damage in redecorating his front room prior to her (first) demise than she ever does following her resurrection. What’s left is a series of quickly wearisome back-and-forths in which Evelyn re-asserts her desire to covert Max to the undead so they can be together forever, followed by his expressions of disgust at that desire and her steadily decaying flesh.
The unadventurous script limits the strong cast, of which Anton Yelchin, playing the put-upon Max, feels most subdued. Yelchin is a charismatic actor who has made a good impression in minor roles in not-so-good movies, but he plays Max so sleepily and lacking any response beyond mild surprise and concern at what should be a terrifying situation that he’s hard to have sympathy for when he himself barely seems concerned by what’s happening. True, he’s not supposed to be a character of any great assertiveness or courage, but Yelchin tips the balance too far until it drops into virtual indifference. His half-brother, Travis, is supposed to be the more ribald and confident of the two, but is such a tedious slobby womaniser stereotype that, rather than being an invigorating presence who pushes Max to stand up for himself, it’s a relief whenever he exits a scene. It also speaks to the movie’s disappointing safeness that he boasts of sleeping around not with centrefold models from Playboy, but FHM, a magazine, like the character, stuck in eye-rolling late-90s ideas of laddish masculinity.
Ashley Greene fares better as Evelyn, pushing back against the tame material to unearth a little of the sadness behind her character’s anger and control-freakery. The obsessive, domineering ex-girlfriend is another tired cliché, but Greene’s history with the Twilight franchise makes for savvy casting as she finds small traces of humanity in her zombified form. Perhaps one of the movie’s most debilitating flaws is that it in fact makes the living Evelyn too likeable and sympathetic, justifying her controlling nature with a sad backstory and a genuine, if overbearing, desire to love and be loved. Her eco-conscious do-goodery (working for a firm called ‘Live Green Or Blog Hard’, one of a number of not-quite-funny-enough Simpsons-esque workplace names) may be pushy and annoying, but it’s hard to deny she has a point when calling out Max for not showing any motivation to improve his lot despite constant complaining. She’s the most fully rounded character in the movie, far moreso than Alexandra Daddario’s dreamgirl sweet Olivia, entirely defined by liking all the same stuff as Max, a dating site approach to a romantic lead where compatibility is calculated exclusively by the number of shared interests.
What is the real stake through Burying The Dead‘s heart is that Shaun Of The Dead, an even more low-budget zom-com, did everything Dante’s movie tries to do to much greater effect eleven years earlier. The movie skirts around the idea of relationship angst among geeky mid-twentysomethings, but Shaun committed more fully to the idea of the difficulty of youngish men finding a direction in life outside their nerdy and nostalgic preoccupations, all the while being significantly scarier, gorier, sweeter and funnier. Nick Frost’s Ed, in particular, is a much more sharply observed depiction of what Travis should have been.
There are glimpses of the picture Dante might have made had his budget been bigger, the writing been sharper, and had he himself maybe been twenty years younger, but they are few and far between, in the end only growing the disappointment that what ended up on the screen is so consistently stuck in second gear and tepid in its execution of already underwhelming ideas. Ashley Greene in particular deserves better, while Alexandra Daddario continues her wait for a movie role which puts her natural affability to more lively use than the girlfriend role. A Dick Miller cameo and a handful of amusing sight gags provide the slim pickings for Dante’s fans, but as welcome as it is to see him back in any sort of cinematic work, it’s a shame the result shows few real signs of life.