Don’t you just hate it when you’re about to break up with your too needy girlfriend and then she’s hit by a bus and dies? But not to worry, in Burying the Ex, the new film from Gremlins director Joe Dante, the dead girlfriend will return as a zombie to take up the protagonist on his silly promise of everlasting love, even though, rather inconveniently, he’s found much more appropriate new-girlfriend material in the meantime. Dante again smoothly combines moments of romantic and screwball comedy, schlocky genre elements and an overarching retro feel for this cute and pretty efficient zom-com, which stars Anton Yelchin and Twilight’s Ashley Greene. A boutique or genre-focused distributor could do worse than try to sell this as a fun, gory and occasionally sexy Halloween-time date movie.
The latest film from Dante, who earlier took on zombies in the memorable Masters of Horror episode Homecoming, is expanded from the eponymous 2008 short that was written and directed by Alan Trezza, who also penned the screenplay for the feature adaptation. The basic setup is very similar, as a 20-something guy working as a horror-movie store salesman, here named Max (Yelchin), is revisited by his environmentally conscious and vegan almost ex-girlfriend, Evelyn (Greene), from beyond the grave, even though now he’s kind of into Olivia (Alexandra Daddario, True Detective), who’s a horror aficionado like him.
In terms of plotting, the film is expertly if classically laid out, handily maneuvering audience sympathy from the cute couple Max and Evelyn to just Max, as she becomes more jealous and over-the-top eco-crazy, to Max and Olivia, with the latter seemingly a much better fit for the young man who one day hopes to open his own horror-themed novelty store. Some tension is derived from Max’s need to not only have to deal with the increasingly rotten-looking and -acting Evelyn, who wants to turn him into a zombie too so they can have their happily ever after, but from Max’s necessity to keep the fact that his dead ex is back from Olivia, who likes the horror geek but who’s been through her own painful breakup — the band name of Olivia’s born-again ex-boyfriend gets one of the film’s biggest laughs — and isn’t willing to sit around while Max goes through his.
The trashy opening credits suggest that the entire film will be crawling with references to the horror, gore and schlock favorites of yesteryear, and though the film is set in the present, there’s a sense throughout that the film’s surface, 1980s-like Spielbergian wholesomeness and optimism is being gleefully undermined. All TV sets and cinemas seem to program only B movies and horror classics, including films from Lewton and Romero, while some masters are literally referenced, such as when Max’s half-brother, Travis (Oliver Cooper, Project X), exclaims, upon meeting the zombie version of Evelyn for the first time: “There’s a freaking Tim Burton movie in your living room!”
There’s just enough blood onscreen to keep gore hounds happy without turning off those who came primarily for the comedy or a little romance, and the film switches gears between genres with Dante’s customary ease, even if none of it goes particularly deep. Much of the film’s humor is of course derived from death-related puns and wordplay, there are a couple of screwball situations and some of the zombie variations on mainstream-comedy standards are inspired, such as when Evelyn projectile-vomits embalming fluid all over her boyfriend. More contemporary-feeling are the antics of the rotund, often semi-naked womanizer Travis, who brings to mind a cheaper version of Seth Rogen, though crucially, Cooper does manage to suggest his character has a heart.
Indeed, the emotional and romantic elements might not be extremely well-developed but are nonetheless credible in the context of the story, if decidedly seen from a male point of view, with Evelyn a sex-crazed animal who doesn’t know how to take a hint and Olivia the more virginal good girl who has to wait before she can get past second base. Similarly, Max always keeps his shirt on while both female leads wear outfits that leave little of their female forms to the imagination.
Yelchin (Star Trek) is a good fit for the geeky young man who’s bewildered by the events but simply tries to deal with what he has in front of him the best he can, while Daddario and Greene are clearly having fun as the good and bad girls, respectively.
Though shot in just 20 days, the film looks polished instead of rushed. Unlike other recent entries in the genre, such as Warm Bodies, the general look of the film is sunny and it makes Los Angeles a true character, with Max and Olivia visiting several places that are iconic for genre fans. Joseph Loduca’s score is appropriately old-school, while a mix of loud indie-rock on the soundtrack is effectively used as a kind of counterbalance, especially during a montage sequence that juxtaposes love and death in Max’s living room and Olivia’s car.
Production companies: Voltage Pictures, Elevated, Act 4 Entertainment, Scooty Woop Entertainment, Artimage Entertainment
Cast: Anton Yelchin, Ashley Greene, Alexandra Daddario, Oliver Cooper, Archie Hahn, Gabrielle Christian, Julia Marchese
Director: Joe Dante
Screenwriter: Alan Trezza
Producers: Alan Tressa, David Johnson, Frankie Lindquist, Mary Cybriwsky, Carl Effenson, Kyle Tekiela
Executive producers: Nicolas Chartier, Cassian Elwes, Zev Foreman, Dominic Rustam, Braden Hopkins
Director of photography: Jonathan Hall
Production designer: Fredrick Waff
Costume designer: Lynette Meyer
Editor: Marshall Harvey
Music: Joseph Loduca
No MPAA rating, 89 minutes