If you grew up as a movie geek in the late 1970s or (especially) the whole of the 1980s, you probably reserve a special place in your heart for Joe Dante. His titles read like a film festival that’d take place in Heaven every spring: Hollywood Boulevard (1976), Piranha (1978), The Howling (1981), Gremlins (1984), Explorers (1985), Innerspace (1987), The ‘burbs (1989), Gremlins 2: The New Batch (1990), Matinee (1993), Small Soldiers (1998), and Looney Tunes: Back in Action (2003). This is a guy who not only knows how to combine horror, adventure, sci-fi, fantasy, and comedy into pitch-perfect genre cocktails, but who also does it with ample doses of energy, color, charm, and a palpable affection for all things movie-related.
So, obviously it goes without saying that Joe Dante is pretty high up on my totem pole of cinematic heroes — and that’s sort of what makes his latest, Burying the Ex, such a tough flick to write about. It’s simply not very good, and although I was actively rooting for this simplistic zombie farce to hit its stride, nail a few gags, or win me over in other departments, it simply refused to play along. Joe Dante still has some chops behind the camera, but in the case of Burying the Ex, the man is saddled with a simplistic, redundant screenplay that aims to be “indie comedy cute” and “comic book broad” at the same time, but pulls off neither.
Burying the Ex is the story of a rotten shrew of a girlfriend who gets his by a bus, comes back as a zombie, and makes life a living hell for her reluctantly loyal boyfriend. (Sorry about the “rotten shrew” description, but you can blame the screenplay. She’s one-note awful.) Of course one could easily pull a funny film out of this premise. Robert Zemeckis did it, in a way, with Death Becomes Her (1992) and Bob Balaban did it rather well with the highly underrated My Boyfriend’s Back (1993) — and that’s the tone that producer/screenwriter Alan Trezza’s premise seems to be going for, but here’s the problem: nothing in Burying the Ex is funny.
You could keep a running tab of groan-worthy semi-puns (stuff in the vein of “that girl totally bites,” which is funny because he’s referring to a zombie girl; get it?) or note the overtly unpleasant tone of the ostensibly witty dialogue, but you still won’t get a whole lot in the laughs department. Also sort of irritating is that, while Anton Yelchin and Alexandra Daddario (as a potential new flame) are legitimately charming in their (too infrequent) scenes together, we’re also forced to spend inordinate amounts of time with the unpleasantly undead — and frankly annoying — Evelyn (Ashley Greene) and a stunningly repulsive “best bro” character (Oliver Cooper) who adds nothing to the film besides a layer of grime.
Ever the efficient storyteller, Dante does all he can to keep things moving along with some degree of energy, but he’s simply undone by an endless array of flat, tone-deaf material that no amount of cinematic references, decent gore effects, geek-friendly in-jokes, and (awesome) Dick Miller cameos can salvage. Mr. Yelchin is (as always) an amusingly weird hero (see also: Odd Thomas), and Ms. Daddario does bring a welcome sense of humanity to the grungy proceedings when she pops in, but the rest is sort of a random splatter of very familiar zombie gags and shock-value nonsense.
It pains me to say this, but Burying the Ex is the first and only Joe Dante feature I’ve ever disliked.
(Which means he still has a batting average well over .960 in my book, so it’s not like this is some big tragedy.)