There have been and will be worse movies than Burying the Ex this year. But I doubt many could match it for disappointment. It’s an uncharacteristically shallow work from Joe Dante, a beloved movie-mad director usually reliable in his ability to bring energy and complexity to all manner of theoretically disreputable genres, while retaining a core of deep affection for the material with which he’s playing. Just look for his name if you want to see clever, aesthetically appealing and subtextually rich creature features (Piranha), monster movies (Gremlins), backlot comedies (The ‘Burbs), sci-fi satires (Small Soldiers), mid-century B-movie love-letters (Matinee), self-critical sequels (Gremlins 2), and live-action cartoons (Looney Tunes: Back in Action). His latest is disappointing not just for falling far short of his usual standard. This is only his third feature in sixteen years. It’s a long-awaited return, enough to make one wish it was in service of a better script.
At the center of Burying the Ex is a horror geek (Anton Yelchin) working in a year-round Halloween shop selling costumes, décor, and curios. The set is lovingly festooned with copies of Fangoria and Video Watchdog, vintage posters for genre cinema, and a TV behind the counter playing Hammer horror. It’s a fandom repository, a place where the film’s macabre heart shines brightest. Throughout the film, the protagonist visits a repertory cinema for a Val Lewton double feature, attends an outdoor screening of Night of the Living Dead, and has his grating comic relief half-brother (Oliver Cooper) watch a Herschell Gordon Lewis DVD. If you’re one of the club, enjoying all these references piling up, you’re certainly on Dante’s wavelength. He loves this stuff genuinely, and knows that those who do will have lots in common with his main character.
Unfortunately, the plot around this guy takes that for granted, expecting us to love him because of the surface ways he’s like us. Screenwriter Alan Trezza concocts a scenario in which we’re supposed to hate the protagonist’s girlfriend (Ashley Greene) because she has no time for his collections and preoccupations. She’s a vegan blogger – shorthand for type-A and clingy, for some reason – who throws out his mint-condition posters to make room for her recycling bins. This is seen as reason enough to loathe her. The guy is going to break up with her, but before he can she’s hit by a bus and bleeds out on the street. At least now he can date the hot malt shop owner (Alexandra Daddario) we know is cool like him because she likes the same pop culture. They bond over Cat People and General Mills Monster Cereals. There’s nothing particularly charming or interesting about their discussions, nor are the characters anything more than what the plot demands.
When the movie’s horror/comedy conceit kicks in, it’s about time. A devilish knickknack makes the dead ex’s dying wish – “We’ll be together forever” – come true. She’s reanimated, a lovesick zombie shambling back to her boyfriend. Clumsy farce follows as a scared guy scrambles to keep his new girlfriend from discovering his undead one and vice versa. This is potentially fruitful ground for genre kicks, and Dante stages the eventual zombie chomping with reasonably effective spurts of gooey fake blood (no phony digital spray here). But the horror isn’t scary – just one good jump scare – and the comedy isn’t funny. Trezza’s script is full of fumbling one-liners falling flat despite the best efforts of everyone involved, and predictable plot points slowly drag their way on screen.
It’s tepid sitcom plotting, without any of the sweet bite or grinning horror that defines Dante’s best work. He’s still capable of staging a light, colorful moment, and the cast is full of bright young performers who’ve been likable elsewhere. But all that can’t save a shrill, tone-deaf experience in which one-note stereotypes engage in underwritten antics. The love triangle is unconvincing, mostly because the guy and his new love interest are so flatly drawn. But even worse is the mean-spirited perspective on the zombie ex. She’s such an unrelentingly shrewish portrait, without any thought given to her inner life, closing off any poignancy or conflict over her death and resurrection. There’s simply no tension or complication to be found. The proceedings grow depressing as they drag on, a thin idea stretched beyond all sustainability, with only the faintest glimmers of personality for the dedicated auteurist to enjoy. I’d say it’s a for-the-diehard-fans-only proposition, but they’re also the ones who’ll be most disappointed. Every bit of Burying the Ex simply points towards ways it should be better.