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Tuesday, April 30, 2019

Director Report Card: Joe Dante (2014)

19. Burying the Ex

In 2004, “Shaun of the Dead” entered the phrase “zom-rom-com” – zombie romantic comedy – into the pop culture lexicon. While a handful of other films attempted to combine romance, comedy, and zombies afterwards (notably the literally entitled “Zombie Honeymoon”), it remained a largely unexplored subgenre... Until 2014. For whatever reason, a full decade after “Shaun” came out, three zom-rom-coms came out around the same time. There was “Life After Beth,” a quirky and genuinely funny take on the concept. Last was “Nina Forever,” the goriest and most erotically charged of the three. In the middle was “Burying the Ex.” Obviously the weakest of the three, Joe Dante was somehow persuaded to direct it.

Max is a worker in a Halloween costume shop, who dreams of starting his own business someday. He's currently dating Evelyn. The two claim to love each other, and have a lot of enthusiastic sex, but their relationship is strained. Evelyn is a control freak who forces Max to conform to her vegan lifestyle and dismisses his dreams and interests. After meeting Olivia, a perky malt shop owner that he immediately connects with, he's convinced to break up with Evelyn. Right before doing so, she's struck by a bus. The day before she died, the couple had unknowingly made a wish on a demonic magical lamp to never be apart. Just as he's ready to move on with Olivia, Evelyn rises from the grave, as an undead – and extremely clingy – zombie.

There's simply no getting around the fact that “Burying the Ex” is the among the most sexist movies I've ever seen. Let's start with the character of Evelyn, even before she turns into a zombie. She is a grotesque caricature of an evil woman. She wants to micro-manage and control every aspect of Max's life, down to his diet. When she moves in with him, she completely redoes the apartment, destroying all his beloved movie posters in the process. She continuously puts down and belittles his own dreams and hobbies. The minute he even begins talking with another woman, she becomes ridiculously jealous and angry. She's also manipulative, mentioning her dead mother every time Max tries to push back on her behavior. Evelyn doesn't act like this because “Burying the Ex” is a sensitive portrayal of being trapped in an emotionally abusive relationship. Instead, it's a sleazy sex comedy that delights in making the bitchiest bitch girlfriend that has ever lived.

The film's blatant sexism is evident in other elements. Look at Travis, Max's philandering half-brother. Travis is an unshaven pig who lives in an apartment decorated with velvet paintings of porn stars. Despite his slovenly ways, he regularly and inexplicably has sex with centerfold models. He's introduced in the aftermath of a threesome, since he callously uses Max's apartment as his shaggin' shack. The character uses words like “poon,” “nut,” and “bang” unironically. He enjoys making women uncomfortable, bragging about getting a boner from watching a softcore skin flick. By the way, what job does this Lothario have? Swinging a sign outside a business, giving him an opportunity to cat-call innocent women. This behavior is portrayed as wacky and lovable, Travis being a goofy comic sidekick. Instead of the utter scumbag he obviously is.

Keep in mind, most of this blatantly sexist stuff is totally aside from the plot of Evelyn becoming a zombie. The “zom-com” part of the film's equation is no less impressive. Once Evelyn returns as an undead creature, the film begins to rely on gory and grotesque slapstick. Evelyn falls and twists her neck graphically, before standing up and straightening it. She vomits embalming fluid onto Max. Her abdominal region collapses while performing yoga. She kisses Max, putrid slime connecting their lips. It's the cheapest physical comedy, all based in how physically repulsive Max finds his girlfriend suddenly. Worst yet, Ashley Greene – stuck with the worst part in the movie – seems deeply uncomfortable with the physical comedy.

Ultimately, “Burying the Ex” is not a very good zombie movie either. The method of resurrection seen in the film – a Halloween store trinket that functions like real magic – is introduced and operates with no further explanation or thought. Despite claiming she'll live forever, Evelyn continues to rot after returning to life. Her skin peels, her eyes become paler, and flies gather around her head yet she never slows down. In fact, she's gifted with special abilities, seen in embarrassing scenes where she shattered boards with super strength and speaks in a deeper, demonic voice. When the film inevitably lurches towards brain munching, it does so with the dopiest and laziest puns imaginable.

The sexism of “Burying the Ex” also extends to Max's relationship with Olivia. See, if Evelyn is the stereotypical mean bitch girlfriend, Olivia is the cliched “cool girl” replacement. She is the most ingenuine creation, a facile nerd wish fulfillment fantasy. She is into all the same geeky bullshit as Max, understanding all his references. The two initially bond over knowing what “Fruit Brute” is. Also, she wants to have sex with him immediately. She exists not as a fully formed character but as a compliment to Max's (deeply shallow) personality. Yeah, Anton Yelchin and Alexandra Daddario have decent chemistry but Daddario could have crackling chemistry with a tree. She is making the most of a terribly thin part.

Anton Yelchin was a charming performer who left us far too soon. His interest in starring in low budget genre films from interesting filmmakers sometimes had him starring in “Green Room” or “Thoroughbreds” and sometimes had him starring in “Odd Thomas” or this movie. Because, no matter how appealing a performer Yelchin might've been, he couldn't have saved this one. Max is not a likable character. The story has him pursuing Olivia while trying to keep Evelyn's continued existence a secret from her. Which just makes it look like he's cheating on one or both of them. While less obviously lascivious than his half-brother, he's just as big a jerk as any other character in the film. He talks about shaving his taint in one scene, for Christ's sake.

Not that we needed any other proof that “Burying the Ex” is the most puerile of sexist, nerd wish fulfillment fantasy but look at the jobs the characters have. Max works in a tiny costume shop, that seems to be partially seasonal. He appears to be the shop's only employee. He frequently leaves the shop unoccupied for hours. And yet he can afford rent for a spacious apartment? In Los Angeles? Similarly, Evelyn has the nebulous job of “blogger” at some vague company devoted to environmentalism. She too can leave her job seemingly at any time in the day. Olivia runs and operates a hipster malt shop with a horror theme that never sees any customers until the end of the movie. She can also leave her business unoccupied for hours on end. Did the person who wrote this movie ever actually hold down a real job? I know I'm overthinking it but, Jesus Christ, it's distracting. Did a twelve year old write this?

As different as all of 2014's movies about zombie girlfriends were, each one is united by the exact same subtext. They use the concept of an undead girlfriend as a metaphor for a relationship that refuses to end, of one partner clinging to a love that is obviously dead. Evelyn is obviously the clingy one in “Burying the Ex,” as the film rarely judges Max's cowardice and refusal to confront his abusive partner. Near the end of the film, “Burying the Ex” steps back and addresses this subtext, when Max frankly tells Evelyn that things went sour with them even before she was hit by a bus. It's a moment that nearly generates some pathos, and probably would've in a better movie. Naturally, “Burying the Ex” immediately crashes back into sophomoric and vulgar slapstick right after this moment is over.

So is there anything to like about “Burying the Ex?” The movie made me laugh exactly three times. The first occurs when Max flips through a book detailing various ways to combat the undead. His glib and off-screen reactions to the obscure methods suggested made me chuckle. Another mildly funny moment comes when Max discusses ending Evelyn's undead existence with Travis. When he suggests shooting her, Max glumly admits he's against firearms. Lastly, during Olivia struggles with Evelyn, the zombie's blunt utterance of “You bitch” after being stabbed in the head was sort of funny. But that's it. Otherwise, “Burying the Ex” is just dispiriting and unfunny.

So what exactly attracted Joe Dante to this material? Considering his second “Masters of Horror” episode, “The Screwfly Solution,” was a biting critique of sexism, it's hard to say. Maybe the script reminded him of the sex comedies he edited back in his New World Pictures days. As in those films, “Burying the Ex” never misses a chance to oogle the partially exposed bodies of its female characters. (Though it does so without any of the charm of seventies sexploitation.) Or maybe it was just the copious classic horror references in the film. Clips from “Plan 9 from Outer Space,” “The Brain That Wouldn't Die,” “House on Haunted Hill,” “Whip and the Body,” “Night of the Living Dead,” and “The Beast from Haunted Cave” are shown on-screen. If you look underneath the dumb-ass comedy and unnerving sexism, “Burying the Ex” does show a cute love of classic horror and Halloween. But that's about the only thing connecting it to Dante's other films, save for the obligatory Dick Miller cameo.

Or maybe it was simply a matter of getting to make a real movie again. After “Looney Tunes: Back in Action” flopped, willing or not, Dante was ejected from the studio system. He's mostly occupied his time directing television, like early Netflix show “Splatter” or the occasional episode of “Hawaii Five-0.” A chance to make an actual feature was probably tempting and maybe the pay was decent too. Whatever the reason, I wish Joe had changed his mind. “Burying the Ex” is an utterly dire motion picture, gross in all the wrong ways and truly lacking in genuine entertainment value. [Grade: F]

Like many of the eighties horror masters, Joe Dante has had trouble getting projects funded. For a brief while, he was attached to a dire-sounding "Twilight"-esque call "Monster Love" that ended up falling through. A dream project of his, one he still talks about from time to time, is "The Man with Kaleidoscope Eyes," a biopic about Roger Corman's time experimenting with psychedelic drugs while making "The Trip." (At one point, Quentin Tarantino expressed interest in playing Corman, which would probably be terrible.) I still hope that one gets made someday, especially since Dante recently a stage reading of the script. In the meantime, Dante seems to occupy his spare time with website/Youtube series "Trailers from Hell."

Of course, Dante does have a new movie coming out this year. Part of one anyway. "Nightmare Cinema" is another horror anthology, about scary stories being shown to people trapped inside a spooky old movie theater, with Mickey Rourke as the Cryptkeeper figure. I was was ready to dismiss "Nightmare Cinema" as simply this year's indie horror anthology until I realized Mick Garris' involvement, and the stacked list of names behind the camera, essentially makes "Nightmare Cinema" "Masters of Horror: The Movie." Granted, that's no guarantee of quality. Garris is a divisive talent even on a good day. The other directors involved - Ryuhei Kitamura, David Slade, Alejandro Bruges - are hardly the most consistent talent either. But I am sort of excited for this one. It'll be coming to Shudder in June.

And that's it for the Joe Dante Director Report Card! While I love many of Dante's films, this ended up feeling like a very long, tiring project. Maybe I should've skipped those "Howling' sequels? Nevertheless, it's done now. Come back tomorrow for the start of another exciting project!

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