Ex to Grind: Dante’s ZomCom Never Finds Its Pulse
Zombies are difficult subject matters for the screen. A staple of a popular subgenre, original narrative inspiration is rare in a field of low yield thrills from contemporary films unable to match the iconic masters, like early George Romero. Of course, every now and then, something innovative and exciting comes along, such as Danny Boyle’s 28 Days Later (2002), and it’s surprisingly energetic sequel. But increasingly, like all glorious horror tropes, comedy has taken the place of tension. Sometimes, in the right hands, this can also be inviting. So it’s disappointing to see a director like Joe Dante, the man who balanced these elements deftly in classics likes Piranha (1981), Gremlins (1984), and The ‘Burbs (1989) turn up with his latest, Burying the Ex. With its overtly fresh faced young cast and first time script from Alan Trezza (adapted from his own 2008 short), the film seems slavishly devoted to ideas and efforts we’ve seen too many times before, its punchlines as flaccid as the flesh of its antagonizing corpse.
Working at a horror memorabilia shop, Max (Anton Yelchin) lives a mostly carefree existence in Los Angeles. He doesn’t love his job and doesn’t love new live-in girlfriend Evelyn (Ashley Greene), but they both afford him access to things a young man needs, it seems. Evelyn, who is a blogging vegetarian, is also something of a control freak, recklessly redecorating the apartment and ‘ruining’ important movie memorabilia, and insisting Max’s dopey half-brother Travis (Oliver Cooper) abstain from using the apartment for random sexual trysts. Max gets over these slights, but when Evelyn freaks out unnecessarily over his flirtation with a hip ice-cream vendor, Olivia (Alexandra Daddario), he decides to call their romance quits. But before he can tell her, Evelyn is struck down by a bus right in front of him. Just as he starts to pursue romance with Olivia, Evelyn returns from the grave, in love and as horny as ever.
Though he’s got plenty of projects in development and has kept busy dabbling in television, this is Dante’s first feature since his 3D family thriller, The Hole, an underrated effort applauded upon its debut at the Venice Film Festival in 2009, the same venue that unveiled this latest outing.
Unfortunately, Burying the Ex, as its title indicates, buries its energy unwisely in lazy puns and a variety of homage to classic B cinema. We catch movie clips of Romero’s Night of the Living Dead (1968), Wood’s Plan 9 From Outer Space (1959), and a choice bit of audio from Bava’s The Whip and the Body (1963) featuring the recently deceased Christopher Lee. A knowing conversation about producer Val Lewton, who helped turned B grade genre films into master works of the genre, transpires between two geeky aficionados, which is perhaps a misstep considering how Lewton’s body of work inventively utilized its low budget constraints, while everything on screen here feels visually lackluster.
As it stands, these references are more clearly attenuated than characterizations of these ‘modern’ young folks, with passages of dialogue pertaining to blogging already feeling dated, and other references (like Tinder) which probably will be, quite soon. So it’s clear the film’s audience is meant to be the avid fan of this kind of (initially) disrespected cinema, except without anything remotely inspired taking place. We’ve seen zombie comedies about significant others inconveniently returning from the grave. A superior, if similarly problematic scenario, was released last year in the form of the Aubrey Plaza headlined Life After Beth. And who can forget Bob Balaban’s 1993 film My Boyfriend’s Back?
The principal cast labors beneath their broadly drawn characterizations, with Oliver Cooper’s homely playboy a sexist throwback to 1980s styled clichés. This only adds to the omnipresent pallor of misogyny coloring Burying the Ex, since we’re meant to feel pity for Yelchin’s nerdy horror buff because his harpy of a girlfriend is too dumb to understand the worth of his vintage posters (which shouldn’t be hanging on a wall, anyway, but whatever). Though she’s bound to stereotype, Ashley Greene fares the best here, obviously relishing playing something other than the mindless drones we’ve seen her portray in a growing number of forgettable roles ranging from her presence in those loony Twilight films to The Apparition (2012). Alexandra Daddario (recently seen as the daughter of Dwayne Johnson in San Andreas), is rather unremarkable as the romantic interest who says all the right things. Why both their characters are dead set on the wanly defined male lead is one of many issues the film never develops. And here we have Anton Yelchin in another inoffensive yet bland lead.
Of late, Yelchin has appeared in several compromised productions from late career auteurs, like Paul Schrader’s Dying of the Light (2014), but this effort feels barely a step above shlock like his turn in Odd Thomas (2013). Silly, scatterbrained, and a chore to sit through, Burying the Ex is not a return to form for the great Joe Dante.
Los Angeles based Nicholas Bell is IONCINEMA.com's Chief Film Critic and covers film festivals such as Sundance, Berlin, Cannes and TIFF. He is part of the critic groups on Rotten Tomatoes, The Los Angeles Film Critics Association (LAFCA), the Online Film Critics Society (OFCS) and GALECA. His top 3 for 2021: France (Bruno Dumont), Passing (Rebecca Hall) and Nightmare Alley (Guillermo Del Toro). He was a jury member at the 2019 Cleveland International Film Festival.