Along with Peter Bodganovich, Joe Dante was one of two Roger Corman pupils to premiere a film at the Venice Film Festival this year. Dante’s “Burying The Ex,” and Bogdanovich’s “She’s Funny That Way” both offer sincere eulogies to the movies of the past. While the director of “The Last Picture Show” pays homage to screwball comedies, Dante offers yet another love letter to the B-movies associated with titans of the genre such as Val Lewton, Herschell Gordon Lewis and many others.
As always in Dante’s work, playful references are never an end to themselves, instead serving as backdrop to a satiric look at popular culture and biting social commentary. After having dealt with the traumas of childhood in “The Hole,” the “Gremlins” director deals with codependency in romantic relationships and the dangers of moving in together — all the while using the tools of ’80s horror to articulate his vision.
Max (Anton Yelchin) happily works in a novelty shop full of the horror-themed objects, but life at home is micromanaged by his despotic vegan girlfriend Evelyn (Ashley Greene). Covered from wall to wall with Italian posters of ingeniously titled B-movies, the apartment gets a drastic makeover when Ashley decides to paint the walls in green and cover them with recycling boxes. Shocked by the new interior design and his girlfriend’s poor judgement, Max starts doubting his compatibility with Ashley. His encounter with Olivia (Alexandra Daddario), an “I-scream” seller specializing in horror-themed confectioneries, increases his reservations regarding his relationship with Ashley. Just after his step-brother Travis (Oliver Cooper) persuades him to break up with his girlfriend, a truck runs over Ashley —and kills her.
At this point, “Burying the Ex” finds its footing as a zombie rom-com. It doesn’t take long for Ashley to come back from the dead after a brief stint in the cemetery, which has apparently made her even more possessive and stubborn. After a none-too-painful mourning period, Max meets Olivia by chance at a screening of Jacques Tourner’s Lewton-produced “I Walked with a Zombie,” ends up walking home with her but decides not to spend the rest of the night at her place. That winds up being the right call, since the very same night Ashley comes back from the dead and straight into Max’s apartment.
If it had proved difficult to separate from his girlfriend when she was alive, things are even more complicated now, given that the eternal love they promised each other earlier is now more plausible than they imagined. Terrified, Max explores several unconventional approaches to get rid of his undead girlfriend, but eventually must to into the same defense mode found in most zombie movies stretching back to the early Romero films. A blood-drenched finale awaits.
Despite a dedicated but perhaps slightly pedestrian adherence to genre conventions, “Burying the Ex” manages to smuggle in a refreshing dose of topicality into a film that could have been made 30 years ago. Here Dante playfully pitches against each other two cultural factions: the new generation of environmentally-friendly bloggers versus the old school fandom brotherhood. Through this narrative device, the director also explores the timeless issues of control and jealousy, commitment and independence that have traversed every relationship from Adam and Eve to Kim and Kanye. The formal apparatus feels less daring than his previous film; generally speaking, we are nowhere close to Dante’s peaks (“Matinee,” “Piranha,” “The Second Civil War”), but his more than competent craftsmanship moves things along.
Veteran Frank Miller — a regular in both Dante and Corman’s filmographies — makes a brief but memorable appearance, while references to other cinematic greats range from Vincent Price to Christopher Lee and Mario Bava. While Dante’s veneration for classic B-movies is infectious and heartfelt, it’s hard not to wish that he would drop the nostalgic veneer and make his own movie. At its core, “Burying the Ex” proves that Dante maintains the spirit of a young, promising director.
“Burying the Ex” premiered last week at the Venice Film Festival. It is currently seeking U.S. distribution.