“He took what could have been B-movie exploitation and made it into arthouse cinema,” gush two Val Lewton enthusiasts at one point in Joe Dante’s comedy-horror doodle “Burying the Ex.” Dante, by contrast, has no such intentions with this strained, sexist schlock, which raises zero jolts and only fitful chuckles with its gamely performed tale of a nerdy horror fanatic (Anton Yelchin) struggling to shake the zombified, zealously clingy corpse of his micromanaging g.f. (Ashley Greene). Unflattering similarities to the recent, superior zom-rom-com “Life After Beth” aren’t the only factor portending a swift interment for this listless return from the beloved director, with VOD the likeliest avenue of access for devoted cultists.
Four years have passed since Dante last came to the Lido with his nifty 3D kids’ adventure “The Hole,” an imperfect effort that nonetheless suggested the alterna-Spielberg of the multiplex had regained some of his energy and invention. His idiosyncrasies have been firmly tamped down, however, in this visually inert new effort, in which stray movie in-jokes and the mandatory Dick Miller cameo feel like half-hearted claims to auteurship. Dutifully following a genre trend, where Dante previously delighted in his own eccentricity, “Burying the Ex” also strikes a note of desperation with the contemporary pop culture references in Alan Trezza’s script, expanded from his 2008 short of the same title. A Tinder joke is one thing, but it’s hard to imagine a line like “I’m blogging up a storm” emerging from the lips of any tuned-in twentysomething.
At least there’s Anton Yelchin, shyly appealing and comically bemused as ever in a role that calls for the same fretful everygeek persona he brought to Craig Gillespie’s 2011 “Fright Night” remake — the kind of playful horror goof-off that may well have caught Dante’s attention. Here, the baby-faced Yelchin is playing a man rather than a teen, though only barely. As Max, a novelty store clerk with a peach-fuzz goatee who commutes to work on a push scooter, he seems an unlikely candidate for the affections of Greene’s gorgeous SoCal environmental activist Evelyn, a Type A do-gooder who, when she isn’t blogging up a storm about hypoallergenic carpets, spends her time trying and failing to instil similar values in her other half.
Trezza frames Evelyn as a nightmare from frame one, though it’s unclear which of her sins — ambition, vegetarianism, objecting to Max’s oafish half-brother Travis (Oliver Cooper) having threesomes in their apartment — are so egregious as to warrant Max’s descriptions of her as “a stark raving lunatic.” (Bela Lugosi-fixated fanboys who wear out their DVDs of “The Gore Gore Girls,” meanwhile, are healthily normal.) When Evelyn flips out over Max’s flirtation with kooky ice-cream seller Olivia (Alexandra Daddario), he resolves to end the relationship once and for all; before he can do so, however, Evelyn is struck dead by a bus.
After a brief period of mourning, he takes up with Olivia, only for Evelyn to turn up on his doorstep bruised, red-eyed and orbited by flies. Having been granted undead life via a mysterious Satanic totem in Max’s store — an especially feeble deus ex machina — she’s determined to bring Max with her to the brain-eating side. Cue much labored farce as Max sets about breaking it off all over again, while attempting to hide the ludicrous truth from his suspicious new flame. (“You really don’t,” he says, when she professes to know exactly what’s up.)
Along the way are a spare handful of amusing comic riffs (none better than a convoluted digression about a church-rock band called The Christian Slaters) and gross-out gags (none grosser than the oral expulsion of embalming fluid), but at just 89 minutes, there hardly seems enough material to fill the time. Watching two intelligent, attractive women fight to the death (or, well, beyond) over the dubiously worthy prize of Max is about as dramatically compelling as it is socially and sexually progressive. It’s tempting to contemplate how the narrative stakes might be raised were our hero forced to choose between two women he actually loves instead of Emasculating Harridan and Manic Pixie Ice-Cream Girl. Still, both actresses make the best of a bad lot: Daddario has something of Lake Bell’s spaced-out warmth about her, while “Twilight” alum Greene handles the bulk of the film’s physical comedy with a loopy abandon that invites more sympathy than revulsion.
Even the Grand Guignol element is half-hearted, with the gore arriving in belated, bloody bursts dictated by evident budget restrictions, though make-up whiz Gary J. Tunnicliffe’s contributions are cheerfully cheesy. The indifferent digital visuals here come as a disappointment after Dante’s pleasingly elastic use of 3D in “The Hole,” with Jonathan Hall’s cinematography risking little more than the odd canted angle. In a film that directly invokes any number of cinematically rich horror touchstones from “Night of the Living Dead” to “Carrie,” such technical shortcomings only highlight the comparative disposability of this ostensible tribute.