In Burying the Ex, Anton Yelchin (Star Trek) portrays a horror merch store clerk attempting to woo the girl of his dreams, played by Alexandra Daddario (San Andreas). The problem? Well, that would be the supernatural return of his deceased ex-girlfriend (Ashley Greene from the Twilight series) in zombiefied, but still lusty, form.
If you’re thinking this all sounds like something Joe Dante would enjoy directing then give yourself a medal. Burying the Ex (which opens in theaters and on VOD, June 19) is indeed the latest offering from the mirth- and macabre-loving director of Piranha, the two Gremlins movies, and The ‘Burbs, to name but a few.
“I was between jobs, as I often find myself, and a guy named Alan Trezza sent me this script,” says the director. “I liked the characters and, particularly, there were two strong female characters, which is something you don’t often see in this genre. He and I got together and we tried to hawk this thing around for anumber of years, predating all of the other zombie romantic-comedies that came inbetween. I think it was right around the time World War Z came out and was such an unexpected success—because it had been bad-mouthed for so long—that suddenly investors woke up and said, ‘Wow, maybe there’s life in this genre yet!’”
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Tell me about casting the film. I once spent a very hot night in Louisiana on the set of Texas Chainsaw 3D watching Alexandra Daddario repeatedly run away from Leatherface, so I assume she was game for anything.
JOE DANTE: For me, the movie is the cast. They’re the reason to see the movie. You can see that they’re having fun. We all had a really good time. It was hard—I mean [we worked] very quickly, and there was a lot of constraints with the makeup, and how long it takes to put on, and how long it takes to get off, and the size of the sets, which were very small. But, even so, it was a tremendous amount of fun to make. I’ve seen the movie with audiences, because we’ve run it at festivals, and it’s really a great audience picture. It’s sort of a shame that so many people are going to see it on video.
How did Ashley Greene deal with having her face covered in zombie gloop day-after-day?
She was incredibly game, to use your word. She was a trouper. It’s a bit of a production problem in the sense that it does take up a lot of time but, also, aesthetically, you want to have a character who’s gorgeous at the beginning, and then rapidly decomposes as the movie goes on—and yet is still attractive. And her face is just so perfectly-formed that, no matter what you put on, she’s still very attractive.
Joe, some of us just have faces like that.
Well, not many of us. I was lucky, I had two of the most gorgeous girls in Hollywood in this picture.
One of the nice things about Burying the Ex is that it is a film which is not only set in Los Angeles, but was actually shot there.
We managed to cobble together a low budget, to be able to shoot it on Los Angeles, which is very rare, in about 20 days. At one point, the producers were thinking of trying to save money by going to New Orleans, where they have some tax incentives. But it was such an L.A.-based story and it’s so intertwined with the life of a certain L.A. subculture that it just seemed to me it would be a fish out of water in a different location. But it was the first time I’ve made a picture in L.A. since 2003.
The equipment houses in L.A. must have thought it was Christmas.
[Laughs] Not on the rates we paid.
This is actually your second zombie venture after “Homecoming,” which you made for Showtime’s Masters of Horror show. Are you a fan of the genre?
Well, my favorite zombie movie is I Walked with a Zombie, which is a Val Lewton movie which is mentioned in Burying the Ex. But, you know, when I was growing up, zombie movies were the lowest rung of the horror movie ladder. They were basically considered junk. And it wasn’t until George [Romero] made Night of the Living Dead that the word “zombie” came to be applied to ghouls and people who just came out of the grave to eat your head or whatever. [Previously] it was a Caribbean-set deal with zombies [being] sort of slave laborers.
But then the Italians started making a lot of zombie rip-offs of George’s picture and suddenly this zombie thing became a whole subgenre to itself. And just lately—since The Walking Dead—it’s eclipsed the vampire and the werewolf in popularity, possibly because so many people can relate to the idea of a loved one coming back. It’s maybe easier to relate to that than the vaguely European mythos of the vampire and the werewolf.
As usual, you cast veteran character actor and Roger Corman favorite Dick Miller in Burying the Ex. I recently watched the documentary about him, That Guy Dick Miller, which I would highly recommend, not least because of your own onscreen participation.
[Laughs] There was a little too much of me I think! But Dick actually came out of retirement to do this thing for me in Burying the Ex. He really had pretty much retired. But then, as you see at the end of the documentary, he’s sitting by the phone waiting for it to ring again. [Laughs] He suddenly decides not to retire during the documentary!
Since we last spoke, you’ve recruited some new gurus to your website Trailers From Hell (where filmmakers add commentaries to vintage movie promos), including Ti West and Max Landis. Do you have anybody else in your sights?
We just recorded Dennis Lehane yesterday. He’s a very well-respected writer and a good “get” for us. We’re plugging away! I never thought it would last this long, but now I feel that we’re sort of a beacon in the wilderness. The new generation is so unfamiliar with a lot of the classics and not-so-classics—but that are still important—that I feel we’re sort of a clearing house to get people interested in movies that they might not know about.
That was one of the questions in Burying the Ex. Anton plays a film nerd, basically, who has these two incredibly gorgeous girls—which makes the movie a complete fantasy, of course!—but he’s into old movies and there’s lot of of retro stuff in his movie store. There was some question on the part of the producers [about], “Well, the kids aren’t going to relate to this.” And I said, “It’s okay if they don’t relate to it—it’s still cool.” I think that there will be a lot of things that might seem intriguing to them that they don’t know about. I think it’s vaguely educational.
I couldn’t agree more. I don’t know if you’ve seen Mad Max: Fury Road but that’s a film which makes clear you don’t have to spell everything out immediately.
Yeah, yeah. That’s amazing, isn’t it, Mad Max?
I think it’s ruined me for other action movies. I went to see San Andreas the other day and my enjoyment of it was lessened by the thought that Mad Max was screening in another theater in the same building.
Well, but Mad Max doesn’t have Alexandra Daddario in it. [Laughs]
What’s next for you?
I have other projects of a similar nature, some of which are European, that are in varying stages of being funded. I have no idea which one of them—or [if] any of them—are going to go. Every so often somebody offers me something. But that’s much more rare. The business has turned into a situation where you have to generate your own projects, and you have to get them funded, and you have to get them cast. So everybody is running around trying to put together financing. We’re very much like Orson Welles was in the last stages of his career, where he does much more begging for money than he does making movies.
Are you still interested in directing a movie about Roger Corman and his experience making The Trip?
Oh, absolutely. I haven’t given up. I still think it’s a great movie. We’re exploring alternate venues for how to get that thing made; maybe not a feature film, maybe as something different, maybe a comic book, a play. I don’t know. It will see the light of day, somehow!
You can see the trailer for Burying the Ex, below.