Joe Dante is, without question, one of my favorite directors. Just a genuinely fun filmmaker. Where would my childhood have been without the subversively satirical live-action cartoons of Small Soldiers & Gremlins II: The New Batch? I shudder to think. As I got older, self-aware genre titles like Piranha & The Howling revealed themselves to be well within my wheelhouse and the genre-defiant fare of Explorers, The Hole, and Matinee have won my heart even as recently as last year. That’s why it hurts me so much to admit that Dante’s latest work, Burying the Ex, is such a crushing disappointment. At a mercifully short 90min, the film is a grueling test of patience, never even coming close to satisfying either the horror or the comedy side of its horror comedy genre. Worse yet, it dabbles in some light, MRA-type misogyny that suggests that Dante has transitioned from the youthful prankster role he’s filled for decades into some unbecoming grumpy curmudgeon territory. It’s truly sad to witness.
As suggested by the “burying the axe” pun from the title, Burying the Ex centers around a troubled romantic relationship that just will not end until the protagonist schlub puts his love & their differences to rest (literally). Max, played by a hoarsely bland Anton Yelchin, finds it difficult to end a longterm relationship with the beautiful Evelyn (Ashley Greene), despite their glaring, irreconcilable differences. This dilemma is complicated even more by Evelyn’s sudden death by speeding bus, which preempts Max’s final attempt to break it off. Somewhere in there is the cool nerd Olivia (Alexandra Daddario) who offers Max a glimpse into what a relationship with someone who shares his geeky interest in oldschool horror films could possibly be like. In comparison, Olivia makes Evelyn look like a megabitch. Evelyn’s violent mood swings, rampaging jealousy, disregard for Max’s monster movie memorabilia, and self-satisfied conviction that she’s saving the world through “green” blogging all make her out to be some kind of a monster, a position that’s only slightly amplified when she rises from the grave to reveal herself as Max’s crazy, undead zombie (ex)girlfriend. Olivia, on the other hand, is more or less just one of the guys.
Zombies as a metaphor for romantic relationships that just won’t die is not only a somewhat unoriginal idea, it was one that one done much better as recently as last year’s Life After Beth. However, the lack of an original concept could’ve been easily overcome if Dante’s typical zaniness had run the show instead of the faintly sexist “Aren’t women just crazy?” vibes that spoil the fun. That’s not even taking into account the nerd fantasy fulfillment that two beautiful women (undead or not) would be fighting over the protagonist Max, who is hopelessly mediocre in both looks & personality (I’ve enjoyed Yelchin elsewhere, just not here). The only part of Burying the Ex that does work is its loving references to older, better monster movies, including shout-outs to The Brain that Wouldn’t Die, Plan 9 from Outer Space, I Walked With a Zombie, Cat People, and the list goes on. When Max explains that horror films are important because they “challenge us to stop accepting the world & face our inner monster & find strength to conquer it,” you really want to find common ground with the film if not only to fulfill that admirable sentiment. However, Burying the Ex never faces its inner misogyny monster, thoroughly misidentifying the enemy as Crazy Women & Their Crazy Ways. All that’s left, then, is cheap, unfunny gags & some last second gore. Whoopee. It’s a highly undignified position for Dante to be in & I hope that this isn’t the part of a larger downward trend in quality for the director, who really should’ve known better than to make this film in the first place.