“She’s back, she’s dead, and she thinks we’re still dating!” shouts Anton Yelchin with an irrepressible gleam in his eye about a half hour into Burying the Ex, a genial horror comedy now available to rent at Redbox kiosks. That moment pretty much sums up the plot and tone of the movie. No matter how lowbrow or silly the material gets, everyone seems to be having a good time in Ex, and no wonder: it’s the first feature in more than five years to be directed by Joe Dante (Gremlins, Small Soldiers), one of the most fun-loving filmmakers alive. Dante’s work, it’s often said, evokes live-action Looney Tunes, popping with sight gags and movie in-jokes and inspiring the feeling that anything is possible in the world of movies. Ex finds the director working with an ultralow budget and a somewhat familiar script, but his good-natured charm still shines through these setbacks.
Before the movie turns into a zombie variation on Noel Coward’s Blithe Spirit, it’s an entertaining cartoon about the dating and mating habits of LA millennials. Yelchin plays Max, the nebbishy manager of a horror-themed boutique who dreams of opening a similar shop of his own. (Like many a Dante protagonist, he’s a sweet-tempered dreamer who loves old horror movies and pop-cultural detritus.) Ashley Greene (of the Twilight movies) plays his girlfriend, a type A green activist who works at an environmental nonprofit. She’s a terrible fit for Max and a somewhat obnoxious person to boot, but it’s indicative of the film’s inclusive humor that the characterization doesn’t feel mean-spirited. Evelyn just cares so much about saving the world and managing her relationship with Max that she’s become a fanatic with regards to both. Her fanaticism inspires some good running gags, however: Max is without a car since Evelyn forced him to give it up (it wasn’t a hybrid), and now he has to get around town on a ridiculous-looking scooter.
Unfortunately for Max, Evelyn gets hit by a bus and dies just before he has a chance to break up with her. Even worse, she made a wish on a “devil genie” in Max’s shop not long before dying that the two of them would never be apart. And so Evelyn rises from the grave a few weeks after the accident and returns to Max’s life to resume their relationship. The scenario plays at first like ghoulish screwball comedy, as Max tries to hide Evelyn’s presence from the new girl who’s taken an interest in him. But things turn somewhat darker when Evelyn gets the idea that she needs to kill Max if the two are going to remain equals—which happens not long before she acquires superstrength and a craving for human flesh.
Dante manages the transitions from horror to comedy like the old pro that he is, maintaining a consistent tone that makes the scares feel like good fun. This feels appropriate since Burying the Ex is, on one level, a tribute to the art of scaring people. Max garners sympathy from the start because he sincerely believes in the cheap, spooky thrills he sells, and it’s clear that the new love interest, Olivia, is a perfect fit for him because she shares his passion for the macabre. These are clearly characters after the director’s heart: in one scene the two bump into each other at a double feature of Cat People and I Walked With a Zombie and briefly extol the virtues of horror producer Val Lewton. At another point Max defends his interests to Evelyn on the grounds that scary movies force us to confront our “inner monsters” and better ourselves in the process. So it goes in Ex, as Yelchin’s put-upon hero slowly works up the courage to break it off with the resurrected Evelyn, something he could never do when she was still a normal person.
Burying the Ex was shot cheaply over 20 days, and it often looks like it. The sets are often a little bare, and the cinematography leaves much to be desired. Yet in its overall slapdash charm, the film recalls the ingratiating comedies that the director made for Roger Corman (Hollywood Boulevard, Piranha) near the beginning of his career. It’s as though Dante, in looking at younger characters, was reminded of his own early adulthood and thought to make Ex into the sort of movie he would have directed then. Like Spike Lee’s recent Da Sweet Blood of Jesus, the movie represents a salute to 70s underground filmmaking, reminding audiences of how personal filmmakers can get when they work below the mainstream.