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Joe Dante on How to Keep Genre Movies Alive

Joe Dante on How to Keep Genre Movies Alive

READ MORE: Venice Review: Joe Dante’s ‘Burying the Ex’ is a Loving Homage to B-Movies

Between the protagonist’s B-movie addiction and a soundtrack that contains odes to “Psycho,” Joe Dante’s “Burying the Ex” plays like a personal love letter to the history of horror cinema. No wonder it hails from Dante, the horror-comedy maestro whose four-decade career includes cult favorites “Piranha” (1978) and “The Howling” (1981) and the beloved “Gremlins” franchise (1984-1990). With a profound love for the genre, Dante informs his work with a deep knowledge of all things horror, and that’s what continues to make watching his films such a blast. 

“I love horror-comedy because I embrace the absurdity,” Dante told Indiewire about his storied career in the genre. “Horror movies are basically absurd, and you can treat it very seriously — and there’s been some great films that are very serious horror films without any laughs — but I find that my approach is similar to how I approach life. I see the absurdity in things.”

The horror bug caught Dante at an early age, and he cites growing up in the “atomic fear era” of the 1950s as the catalyst for his horror obsessions. “When you went to the movies you saw a radioactive dinosaur or giant ants. I would come home and have terrible nightmares, and my parents would always say, ‘Why do you go to these movies if they give you nightmares?'” he recalled with a laugh. 

“And I just couldn’t answer the question, but I was drawn to them. It was just something about the fantastic that was more interesting to me than the normal. I loved westerns and regular kinds of movies too, but these science fiction horror movies were the ones that really stayed with me.” By the time 1930s horror pictures became syndicated on television, Dante was officially a horror-cinephile. 

Moviemaking came knocking after he found a mentor in Roger Corman, the hugely successful B-movie producer who also jumpstarted the careers of Francis Ford Coppola and James Cameron. Not only had Dante found a producer who shared his affinity for the horror genre, but he also found one who was an expert on making movies on tight schedules and with low budgets. 

“When I used to work for Roger Corman we had to make movies in a week or so,” he remembered. “I learned a lot of tricks and a lot of ways to get the best onscreen with the least amount of money. The real importance when you’re making a movie is what happens between shots. If it’s a big movie there may be hours between shots, but on small movies like his there couldn’t be much more than a minute between shots, so you’d have to get as much coverage as possible.” 

Filming on-the-go with Corman proved imperative on the set of his new feature, the zombie romantic-comedy “Burying the Ex.” The first feature film Dante has made in five years, “Ex” was shot in a mere 20 days. “When you have that little time, you don’t get to rehearse, so you really have to have the whole movie in your head,” Dante explained. Working with Corman no doubt helped Dante navigate the tight schedule, and the director found much to appreciate about the rapid-fire shoot.

“It’s more exciting because you’re working at much more of an intuitive level. You have to make quick decisions, and if something you try doesn’t work, then you immediately have to figure out a way to do it in another way,” he claimed. “The crew and the cast all have to be on your side when you’re moving at this pace. There’s a sense of community when you’re making a low budget film under these kinds of conditions.”

Fortunately, Dante had a game cast to help the production find its footing. Anton Yelchin, who plays horror prop shop owner Max, turned out to be just as much of a horror-obsessor as Dante. Co-star Ashley Greene, meanwhile, knew her genre cinema well thanks to the “Twilight” franchise, and she became an asset on set as she dove head first into her “grueling” role as Max’s undead girlfriend.

As for whether or not audiences will embrace his spin on the zombie movie, Dante assured, “The genre only works if you shake it up. We’ve been making these kinds of films for so long, and audiences have been watching them for so long now that they got all the tropes down. They’ve seen the ‘Scream’ movies, they know all of the cliches. We as filmmakers have to try and put it in a slightly different perspective or else it’s just going to look like regurgitated stuff. Here, I decided not to approach it as a zombie movie. It’s a romantic-comedy that happens to have a zombie in it. That’s better for the material, and it’s also good for the audience.”

“You have to stay ahead of the audience in horror, and for that reason it’s particularly difficult to be in the genre these days,” Dante continued. “The movies that are made now are imitations of what have come before — or they’re sequels or remakes — and thus staying ahead of the audience becomes more difficult because you’re doing the umpteenth version of something they’re already familiar with. It’s a very rare movie like ‘Cabin in the Woods’ that takes all the tropes the audience expects and turns them on their head and gives them more than they want. That’s very hard to do now, though, there’s just so many of these movies.”

It may be harder, but Dante continues to push on with indie curveballs like “Burying the Ex.” When asked what tips he’d give filmmakers embarking on similar projects, he was quick to claim, “Get a firm grasp on what you want to say and figure out how economically you can say it and in how few shots you can film it in.” And as Roger Corman humorously taught him: “Sit down more.”

“Burying the Ex” is now playing in select theaters and is available On Demand.

READ MORE: Watch: Anton Yelchin Has a Hard Time ‘Burying the Ex’ in New Trailer

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