Joe Dante on His New Film 'Burying the Ex' and Why He Considers Zombies the "National Monster"

"They're so American," the 'Gremlins' director tells The Hollywood Reporter of his latest horror-comedy creature.
Courtesyof RLJ Entertainment; AP Images/Invision
Ashley Greene, Joe Dante

Joe Dante is behind some of the most iconic horror comedies of the past four decades, from the Piranha franchise to Gremlins (though he's apparently not involved with the remake) to the werewolf thriller The Howling.

So it should be no surprise he's returning to the subgenre with his new feature Burying the Ex. He's ventured into other genres in the past several decades, with family films (Small Soldiers) and action comedies (Innerspace) on his resume, but he tells The Hollywood Reporter his modus operandi is bringing levity to horror because "to me the horror genre and the comedy genre are inextricably connected.

"They complement each other," he says. "It's because the horror genre itself traffics in absurdity. The phenomenon of the bad laugh is very common in horror. People are nervous, and the first way they respond to that is to laugh. The way to combat that is to bring them in on the joke."

Burying the Ex centers on a guy (Anton Yelchin) who moves on when his girlfriend (Twilight's Ashley Greene) is killed, only for her to rise from the grave and cause problems for him and his new love interest (San Andreas' Alexandra Daddario). Voltage Pictures produced, and Image/RLJ Entertainment will release the film in theaters and on VOD on Friday.

Dante says he connected with Alan Trezza's script when he read it seven years ago, despite zombies never intriguing him like other movie monsters. Here's an edited transcript of his conversation with THR:

Why were you drawn to Burying the Ex?

The reason I liked it was because it's got a couple strong female characters, and I liked the humor and the dialogue. It's a situation I think people should relate to: The idea is someone stays with someone because they don't want to hurt them.

You're one of the original names in horror-comedy. What inspired you to combine the genres?

I was mugged. My girlfriend and I were tied up in the back of a car and were driven to a bridge, and one of the guys wanted to turn the windshield wipers on but couldn't figure out how to turn the wipers on. So my girlfriend just reached past the seat and showed them how to turn the wipers on. Then they realized we weren’t tied up, they panicked and started shouting at us. It was a very funny moment, and it could've been a complete disaster. I was aware of the absurdity of the scene, and I was also worried they could kill us. That combination of emotions always informs my approach to doing horror movies.

Did you ever write that into a movie?

No, I've never dramatized it!

Zombies are rare in your films. Why? And did you like working in the genre?

I did one zombie movie, for Masters of Horror I did a zombie Iraq war propaganda piece, Homecoming. So Burying the Ex is not my first zombie movie, but zombies were never my favorite genre. I think they're so American. The werewolf and the vampire are originally European. The real original zombies are Caribbean, not American, but the [George] Romero zombies, which is what we call zombies now, are an American phenomenon. I think it's morphed into, 'This is our monster, this is our national monster.'

I guess I’m making a zombie because that's what’s contemporary, but I never said, 'This is going to be the greatest zombie movie of all time,' because it's really a relationship movie. To have a character who comes back and tries to be the same person they were, it's kind of funny, but it's also horrible and relatable.

You're a horror film veteran. What's exciting about the genre right now, and what's frustrating?

We're in an interesting time because the genre's never been so popular. When I was a kid, horror movies were generally considered junk, no matter who made them. Now that it's popular and has this broad audience base around the world, you can't pull the old tricks anymore. The trick is doing something that's original and yet giving the audiences what they think they want. The movie that’s the exemplar of that idea is The Cabin in the Woods. It's a movie that brings the audience in, then gives them a left hook. It says we're going to give you what you want, but we’re going to give you something else too and put it in a different box. That's what you aspire to, something as clever as that.

I think the future is complicated by the fact that the people who are funding the movies don't really know where they’re going to play. With Burying the Ex, if I'd made the same movie decades ago, it would've opened at 50 drive-ins and a lot of double-bills. Today that movie is opening in 10 theaters and on VOD, so everyone will watch it on their computer. Scaring people on your computer versus scaring people on a big screen in an empty theater is a completely different situation.

Do you have any "white whale" projects?

The Man with Kaleidoscope Eyes, [a biopic of B-movie producer Roger Corman]. We came very close to making it twice and it fell apart both times, but as was proved with Platoon, which took Oliver Stone years to make, you don't give up. The market changes, the players change, and you just keep these things in your back pocket. It's personal to me because I've known Roger for years, and it's a funny script, and it's all true, which makes it even funnier.

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