Of course a 2015 Joe Dante horror-comedy would be some kind of throwback. The Gremlins director has spent a career idealizing the creature-feature jollies of his youth, jolting audiences with wittily vicious nostalgia. Dante’s goofy monster movies have always been more toothy than their antecedents — more technically accomplished, fully in control of what’s scary and what’s funny. The movies he made were the movies his kiddo self probably always wished he had been seeing.
Now, after a decade of TV work and a not-bad kids flick, Dante — like his ’03 Looney Tunes — is back in action. But instead of harking to the matinees that once inspired him, his zombie-girlfriend embarrassment Burying the Ex digs back into less promising territory: early seasons of Two and a Half Men, liberated from censorial broadcast standards, with hapless horndog bro-dopes just wanting to be guys while annoying women harsh them: “She’s going to shit a Prius,” we’re told, of Evelyn (Ashley Greene), the easily angered vegan girlfriend of nice-guy horror geek Max (Anton Yelchin). The movie’s first twenty minutes are all about what a hellbeast she is: She won’t eat ice cream; she’s employed by an environmental blogsite; one afternoon, she remodels their entire apartment without consulting Max, carelessly tossing his prized international horror-flick posters into a drawer. This revelation is scored to the Psycho-style freakout of a string section. Evelyn doesn’t understand why this would upset him — is it worth pointing out that, even in a cartoonish comedy, no person who purports to love you would ever behave this way?
Meanwhile, street-corner sign-twirler Travis (Oliver Cooper), Max’s half-brother, somehow lands threesomes with model/actress types whose thonged asses appear on camera well before their faces. “I have a scorching-hot date with this month’s FHM centerfold,” he says, a line so dated it might have been mailed to you by Columbia House. Alan Trezza’s script also boasts a Christian Slater joke and these choice buzzwords: dumper, dumpee, Tinder, milf, “single and ready to mingle!” Travis snaps, “Ever since little miss bonerkiller banned me from your apartment, I haven’t been able to get any poon!” The scariest thing about Burying the Ex is that there are screenwriters and producers who believe there’s an audience for this sub-Entourage swill.
Eventually, that awful girlfriend dies in an accident. But she comes back as a lusty zombie, just when Max has begun to move on, and the screenplay has gifted him its most impossible invention: Alexandra Daddario, who played the mistress of Woody Harrelson’s True Detective cop, as the cineaste proprietress of an ice cream shop. She’s just your everyday regular gal/supermodel, eager to meet the kind of boy she can say things like this to, after leaving Cat People at the New Beverly Cinema: “The guy took what could have been B-movie exploitation and turned it into arthouse cinema.”
The zombie ex, meanwhile, is clingy even in undeath, making Max’s hookup with Girlfriend 2.0 impossible. Neither female character makes much sense, with or without a pulse: One is simply the movie’s idea of a “good” girlfriend — impossibly beautiful; devoted only to the same interests he is — while the other is nothing but a monster, even before she starts to devour the living. She doesn’t seem much changed after clawing out of her own grave — her dead-girl makeup wouldn’t win her third place in a Des Moines zombie costume contest — and her scenes are mostly listless.
Her worst moment might be the worst I’ve seen in a Dante film. After chewing on her first victim, her face slathered in gore, she says, “This better not go straight to my thighs.” Dante took what could have been B-movie exploitation, and he turned it into jokes Charlie Sheen would shoot down.
Once in a while, the director’s touch enlivens things. Dante does nice work with the passage of time after Evelyn’s death, and he’s still good at setups and the occasional atmospheric set piece: Two scenes set at the Hollywood Forever Cemetery seem to promise that the movie might richen into something memorable. But, for the most part, Burying the Ex has the canned sunny look of cheap-o TV, and it’s upstaged again and again by the black-and-white horror films that play on every screen these characters happen to stand by: Even Plan 9 From Outer Space (glimpsed here) felt like it was trying to be worth looking at. And you know you’re in trouble when Dick Miller’s cameo doesn’t brighten things up.
Burying the Ex
Directed by Joe Dante
Opens June 19