Burying the Ex, director Joe Dante’s feature-length expansion of screenwriter Alan Trezza’s 2008 short, doesn’t have much use for the zombie apocalypse, and the modestly budgeted, all-around-modest comedy is better for it. The movie trades in the current zeitgeist for all things undead, but it exchanges the gore and zombie-sociology of your average George A. Romero picture, or even more wide-ranging canvases like The Walking Dead or World War Z, for something considerably more intimate– it isn’t at all concerned with what it might mean that someone has suddenly returned from the dead, or even the how of it. (The explanation for that is even more blithely tossed off than it was in Gremlins.)
Burying the Ex keeps it refreshingly simple, asking the question, “What if I dump my girlfriend and she refuses to go away?”, strains that query through various nods to Lucio Fulci and Mario Bava (and, of course, Joe Dante), and comes up with a rotting-flesh variation on Fatal Attraction. Glenn Close’s angry declaration “I’m not gonna be ignored, Dan!” becomes, in Burying the Ex, an unspoken mantra, the rare ‘80s movie reference this picture doesn’t traffic in right there on its gleaming, sunshiny surface.
However, the movie casts its own spell, in (graying) body, mind and spirit, by invoking another familiar template of ‘80s cinema, the slightly risque R-rated romantic comedy. Without overdoing the raunch (it’s an R-rated comedy that deserves a PG-13), Burying the Ex hues so closely to the formula, in fact, that the movie could be placed in a time machine and recast with C. Thomas Howell, Tiffani Amber Theissen, Kelly Preston and Curtis Armstrong without radically changing the end result.
Max (Anton Yelchin) is a good-natured, slightly passive-aggressive bloke who gets up late every day, routinely kicks his slovenly best friend/half-brother Travis (Oliver Cooper) and whoever Travis has picked up for the night off the floor and out the door of his apartment, and whiles away his days behind the counter of an Echo Park horror novelty store dreaming of one day opening his own shop.
His life is complicated by the type-A manipulations of his overbearing girlfriend Evelyn (Ashley Greene), a blogger for a green social media-oriented corporation who moves into his apartment and promptly replaces his filthy carpets and wallpaper with trendy furniture and an eco-friendly, soy-based paint job. Evelyn is possessive in the extreme, and never more so than when she and Max stumble into an ice-cream shop owned by Olivia (Alexandra Daddario) which boasts homemade flavors based on classic horror movie characters. Olivia is clearly the girl Max should be with, and after Evelyn makes like a monster herself and storms out of the ice-cream parlor Max begins to realize that his life would be a whole lot less complicated, and considerably more pleasant, without Evelyn around.
He gets his wish when Evelyn is flattened by a bus on her way to meet Max, who had planned to simply break up with her but now finds his relationship problem solved by a simple twist of fate. Unfortunately, the twisting doesn’t stop there. It seems that in dismissively handling a satanic token delivered to Max’s shop from an unknown source, Evelyn’s proclamations of eternal devotion, which she has bullied Max into agreeing to, are given literal fulfillment, and she is soon digging her way out of her early grave and making her way back to their apartment, where she takes up residence and attempts to stay alive long enough to convince Max (by any means necessary) to zombie up and join her on her flesh-eating shuffle through eternity.
Trezza and Dante keep the focus squarely on the Max-Evelyn-Olivia triangle, with occasional asides from Travis’s world of threesomes and avoidance of adult responsibilities, and as a result the movie feels much more lived in than it might if it roamed closer to the sensibility of a more typically attention-deficient zombie feature. The absence of ornate production design, elaborate set pieces and an excess of viscera serves as a reminder of the movie’s meager budget, but it also keeps the focus on the relationships.
There is some welcome wildness– a great gag involving regurgitated embalming fluid that whets the appetite just fine– but it’s possible to come away from Burying the Ex feeling a little undernourished. However, the movie and its unassuming means have a way of sticking with you, with an understated insistence that is in perfect contrast to Evelyn’s passive-really aggressive appeals from beyond the grave. In its low-key approach to storytelling, it winds up being about something other than the gross-out, which is the hallmark of any worthy zombie movie, comedy or no.
Burying the Ex isn’t Dante’s most visually distinctive picture either, though it looks just good enough, and that may have something to do with the quickness of the shoot and the genre he’s referencing. (Quick, name a memorable shot or sequence from Secret Admirer. I thought not.) But the affection he has for these kids and their as-yet-unspoiled perspectives on life is infectious and helps carry the audience through some of the movie’s thinner patches. And his young cast responds to that affection too. Yelchin and Daddario are appealing without wearing out their welcome in roles that could have easily been colorless and by-the-numbers. (Cooper isn’t quite as lucky—the shadow of Armstrong loometh large.)
But the movie’s real ace is Ashley Greene. Having avoided the Twilight series, I knew her face and little else about her going in. But I was won over by her insinuating energy—the rage and insecurity Evelyn can barely mask with proclamations of devotion while alive get a satanic workout once she’s dead, and she’s fiercely funny, the core ball of fire around which the entire movie spins. It’s a real achievement that she can inspire both Max’s horror and, eventually, the audience’s sympathy, even when (especially when) her intentions, and her body, really begin to fall apart. (The movie can’t seem to settle on whether she’s a garden-variety zombie or a resurrected servant of Satan—her status seems to vary depending on her increasingly black mood.)
And in case you happen to forget this is A Joe Dante Film, keep your eyes peeled for cheerful cameos from the Dante stock company such as John Hora (cinematographer of many of Dante’s pictures, including The Howling and Explorers), Archie Hahn (Gremlins 2: The New Batch) and he of the friendliest grizzled visage in all of cinema, Dick Miller. (“Goddamn methheads!”)
This is Dante’s most modestly scaled picture since the halcyon days of Hollywood Boulevard, and though it doesn’t have the knockabout energy and fearless go-for-broke sense of calamity that characterized that classic, it does recapture some of the Corman-era DIY sensibility of Dante’s early work, and it serves as a well-observed tour through some LA locales– it was shot primarily in Echo Park– that give it a welcome, homegrown quality familiar to Dante’s low-budget roots. (The picture was financed in part through crowd-funding.)
Burying the Ex may disappoint the audience seeking out an effects-laden romp, and it’s difficult to guess how time and horror movie history will assess its modest aims. But those willing to look beneath the green contact lenses, flaking flesh and somewhat understated gore there is may find something unusual for this sort of movie as a sort of replacement—the sure sound of a beating heart.
11 OTHER WORTHY ZOMBIE COMEDIES (AND ONE REALLY BAD ONE)
Corpse Bride (2005) and Frankenweenie (2012) Tim Burton’s fine, heartfelt one-two punch of animated resurrection beautifully encapsulates, whether the movies are seen together or on their own, the director’s movie-infused beyond-the-grave romanticism.
Dead Alive aka Braindead (1992) This hilarious, gleefully over-the-top zombie assault, a spot-on parody of Fulcian excess, is the sort of movie many of us wish Peter Jackson would get back to making.
Evil Dead 2: Dead by Dawn (1987) In which Sam Raimi marries Tex Avery and Chuck Jones to Tobe Hooper and Stuart Gordon with unpredictably unhinged, very groovy results.
Fido (2006) Canadian director Andrew Currie picks up a thread from the work of George A. Romero (and Edgar Wright, and Bob Balaban) and examines the comic possibilities of a domesticated class of zombies leashed up in an irradiated world resembling the ‘50s.
The Ghost Breakers (1940) The original zombie comedy pits broadcaster Bob Hope and heiress Paulette Goddard against zombies and ghosts in an apparently haunted Cuban castle. Show this one to the kids before they see the Tim Burton movies.
My Boyfriend’s Back (1993) The rom-zom-com picture most closely resembling Burying the Ex in approach, this ignominious, tonally misjudged farce is as wobbly and unfocused and badly modulated as director Balaban’s previous film, the cannibalistic social satire Parents, was assured and devastating.
Re-animator (1985) The high-water mark of rampaging zombie comedies, this H.P. Lovecraft-inspired romp boasts the greatest visual joke in zombie movie history. (Ask Pauline Kael!)
Return of the Living Dead (1985) Dan O’Bannon married Romero’s legacy to a relentless punk blast of energy which proved there was plenty of recycled life left in the hungry zombie formula.
Shaun of the Dead (2004) In reworking Romero’s sensibility to his own ends, director Edgar Wright effectively parodies an increasingly long-in-the-tooth genre while infusing it with his own specifically British satiric thrust, proving that one can have one’s brains and eat them too.
Warm Bodies (2013) Probably the most conventionally romantic of all rom-zom-coms (it is, after all, rooted in Romeo and Juliet), this delightful movie works convincingly with a concept usually far absent from post-apocalyptic cinema: hope for a better world.
Zombieland (2009) Ruben Fleischer’s gory, self-conscious comedy doesn’t betray much empathy for the horror genre, even its modern modes, but it’s entertaining nonetheless and has (no spoiler, in case you haven’t yet seen it) one of the most killer cameos ever.