A hard film to hate, but an even harder one to defend, Joe Dante’s throwback zombie comedy “Burying the Ex” is a completely unreconstructed B-movie that is perfectly happy to breeze by on charm, nostalgia and the attractiveness of its leads. We’d be happy to give a wholehearted pass were it not for the fact that, seemingly rocketing in from somewhere around 1986, the zenith of Dante’s reign as king of the loopy horror-com, and picking up an oddly early ’90s TV aesthetic on the way, a few unwelcome elements have also come along for the ride, clinging onto the side of the fuselage like gremlins.
Most unfortunately, and leading to the film’s biggest flaw of using cliché where a little inventiveness would have been nice, there are some stale gender politics happening, which casts the main plot not just as a comic take on the living fighting the undead, but also as the same old, same old story of a young every-guy caught between two unfeasibly attractive women. One of whom, the “ex” of the title, just has to be a shrewish, control freak with semi-psychotic abandonment and possessiveness issues, and that’s before she’s been zombiefied. Add to that a slobbish, horny but unbelievably successful-with-women best friend/brother, and what you have are characters that are not so much offensive as disappointingly lazy, when so much else is bubbly and eager to please.
Max (Anton Yelchin), who works in a horror novelty store called Bloody Mary’s, is dating Evelyn (Ashley Greene), a high-maintenance Type-A who foists her veganism and environmental awareness onto Max’s lifestyle, forcing him to make frequent avowals of undying love to her. Unfortunately, one such promise happens in front of a wish-granting devil tchotchke that Max receives mysteriously. However, rather than that meaning the devil will ensure Evelyn and Max grow old together in mutual lasting affection, it means that as soon as she’s killed (splatted rather hilariously by a passing bus) Evelyn will claw her way out of the grave and make her way back to Max, despite visibly decaying and collecting more and more flies as time goes on. In the meantime, of course, Max has fallen for Olivia (who wouldn’t, she’s played by Alexandra Daddario), the archetypal down-girl who is not only unaware how utterly gorgeous she is, she’s also into all the horror stuff Max loves, and runs an Ice Cream Store called I Scream, in which all the homemade flavors are inspired by horror iconography. If we could find this girl, we’d want to marry her too.
Picking holes in the plot is a futile exercise because there is more hole than plot, but a few examples should give you a flavor of this Swiss cheese. Why the ultimate method of dispatch works isn’t entirely clear, neither is why it also breaks the devil’s spell (the devil is never referred to again, in fact). And why Max elects not to simply tell Olivia in the beginning what has happened (if anyone would understand his predicament, dream girl horror aficionado would) is also one of those things that just is the way it is because no one could be bothered to think of a line of dialogue that might explain it away. Max’s half brother Travis (Oliver Cooper) first abandons him, but then elects to help him out at great personal risk is, again, just because he does. All these things would totally derail a film that had even 5% more ambition or pretension than this does. But in this regard, “Burying the Ex” is like a scatty but loyal old friend who keeps dropping shit and buttoning up his shirt wrong: you just can’t stay mad.
Some nods to modernity are made, in such a clunky and on-the-nose fashion that we have to believe they are self-aware. Rather like the script was printed out with “Insert Already Dated Pop Culture Reference Here” boxes dotted throughout, every time Evelyn is shown at work she manages to mention how she’s “finishing up a blog” or “blogging up a storm” for her “environmental blog” with the brilliantly awful name of “Live Green or Blog Hard.” Max is worried at one point that Evelyn will “shit a Prius” and rides a push scooter to work while wearing a helmet. At “Club Death,” a gaggle of black-clad eye-linered girls admire Evelyn’s undead pallor. “She is so Goth” says one, a sentence that we’re pretty sure most actual Goths would not be caught dead(er) saying.
But there are jokes that land, and there’s the general good-heartedness to the whole affair. Greene is saddled with a harridan of a character to play, but gets to have fun with it as soon as she’s dead. Yelchin is endearingly boyish, even when making the kind of nonsensical decisions the undercooked plot requires of him. But the MVP, and not just because we fancy her rotten, is Daddario, who actually imbues her character with a genuinely sweet mix of vulnerability and forward-ness, and who rustles up a fair amount of PG chemistry with Yelchin to boot.
Shame, then, it all looks so cheap. Overlit and with TV-show level sets and locations, half the time “Burying the Ex” looks more like an early episode of ‘Buffy‘ than a feature film, let alone one premiering inexplicably on the Lido. With a glut of rom-zom-coms recently, we can’t help but feel that Dante needed to do a little more than blow the dust off of his old bag of tricks in order to give people a reason to seek this one out instead of “Life after Beth” or “Warm Bodies,” or a rewatch of “Shaun of the Dead.” What we get here is not a reinvention, nor a reinterpretation, it’s the wholesale reanimation of something that had been buried for a long while. Like the shambling zombie corpse it is, initially we’re glad to see it come back to life, but pretty soon, for all its puns and Val Lewton references, it starts to decompose. [B-/C+]