Make them fast, cheap and entertaining -- those were the basic rules filmmaker Joe Dante learned early on at the Roger Corman school of filmmaking. And even after crafting some massive, big-budget mega-hits over his long career, he hasn't forgotten the basics.
"Burying the Ex," a beguiling and quirky zombie-themed romantic comedy -- a zom-rom-com -- is the latest film from a director whose filmography is a diverse list, filled with "Gremlins," "The Howling," "Innerspace," "Explorers" and "The 'Burbs." Still, even with an impressive cast of hot young Hollywood leads that includes Anton Yelchin ("Star Trek"), Ashley Greene ("Twilight") and Alexandra Daddario ("San Andreas"), Dante -- who's lately been behind the camera in the accelerated world of television, directing shows like "Hawaii 5-0" and "The Witches of East End" -- worked on a tight production budget.
But as one of a generation of filmmakers (including Francis Ford Coppola and James Cameron) who cut their teeth at Corman's New World Pictures, the legendary home of low-budget but often high-quality quickies -- Dante directed the studio's 1978 classic "Piranha," which announced him as a master of blending the horror and comedy genres -- the director knew that he could make any amount of time and money work in his favor.
"The material was up my alley," Dante told Spinoff Online. "It was a good script, it was funny, I liked the characters. It was not a huge, big deal. It was, obviously not going to be made for not much money, and I know how to do that. And luckily, we were able to talk people into making it in L.A., because it's a very L.A.-centric movie. And even though it was very rushed -- very much like a Roger Corman special from my past -- it was a lot of fun to do."
After pushing the project forward for a few years, when Dante finally got the greenlight, speed and resourcefulness were once again key to his approach. "It came together so suddenly that it was literally, 'Let's put on a show,'" he told SPINOFF. "We didn't even build a set: it was the basic apartment set from some other show, and we just found a way to manipulate it so we could use it. It was very much like my Corman days -- and when I showed it to Corman, he said, 'This looks just like a New World picture!' Except for the fact that it's a little hipper, it could have been made the same way in the '70s."
As a veteran of both huge production and micro-budget indies, leading man Anton Yelchin -- who plays a horror buff who's freed from under the thumb of his sexy but controlling girlfriend (Ashely Greene) when she dies, only to find himself still at her mercy when she's revived as one of the walking dead -- was impressed by the blend of Dante's vision and efficiency.
"He's very much a filmmaker from the Roger Corman school, and he doesn't shoot an extra bit of coverage that he won't use," Yelchin said. "He has the whole film cut in his head. It's really a class in studying how to be a director, how to be a filmmaker… He has an encyclopedic knowledge of cinema. I mean, I feel so fortunate to be able to pick his brain about that. He's just a lovely, funny man, and I love talking to him. He's like my movie mentor."
"That level of appreciation and understanding of cinema, his contribution to Hollywood cinema and understanding of Hollywood cinema is sadly, pretty rare these days," adds the actor. "And I think a true, true devotion to cinema from the least-known B-pictures and C-pictures to the most well-known films, that sort of dedication to studying and understanding it all is really, really rare and it's really a privilege to be around."
The film's genesis was with screenwriter Alan Trezza, who conceived of the central concept and made his own short film of the same name. "I was just doing my own sort of zombie marathon in my house," Trezza recalls, "going through all the great ones -- all the Lucio Fulci films and George Romero films -- and then I realized that what made these films special was not that they were really solely about zombies, but that they were using the zombie as a metaphor for something greater. 'Night of the Living Dead,' if you break it down, is really about race relations. 'Dawn of the Dead,' which takes place in a shopping mall, is simply about consumerism. And then Danny Boyle did it again with '28 Days Later,' which is really about fear of a disease spreading.
"I realized, 'Well, no one's used a zombie trope as a metaphor for a relationship that won't die. That person you just can't seem to get out of your life,'" Trezza continued. "That was really what struck. I said, 'I've got to write this movie now, because if I don't do it, someone else will.'"
When the film was developed as a full-length feature, Dante quickly became interested. "I've heard so many stories of screenwriters meeting with their directors and having the director completely throw out their draft or change things," says the writer. "With Joe, from the minute we met, we were off to the races. He knew exactly what I was going for. He knew all the nods I was putting in the script, and then an incredible collaboration sprang forth from that."
"I think the two genres are very close," says Dante of why he's so attracted to the hybrid of horror and comedy. "I think because horror is basically absurd and people are waiting to laugh at it, it's better to combine it with comedy, so that the humor becomes part of the scares and the audience knows exactly what your attitude is toward it We know that it's not real, you know that it's not real, but just ride with us and suspend your disbelief. You'll have a good time."
But as his fans know, in a Dante film the scares come with a genuinely horrific edge -- and "Burying the Ex" follows solidly in that tradition. "The first film I've seen of his was 'The Howling,' and I just remember being scared to death," Trezza said. "I saw it, I believe, when I was nine years old, and it just chilled me to the bone. I talked to him about it when we first met and told him how much it scared me, and he said, 'Well, then I did my job.' I knew when his name was attached to a film, that it was going to be something different, something special, fantastical, and just completely and totally entertaining."
Trezza suggests that for those involved in the making of a Joe Dante film, the experience is as entertaining as watching the film is for audiences. "He's one of the kindest, smartest, and gentlest men I know, which is why I think actors love him so much. He makes the set a joy to go to in the morning. He makes the set difficult to leave at night. You just want to be in his presence. Everything with him is about finding the joy in things."
"Joe's an incredibly giving and nurturing and kind man who allowed us to play with our characters and do things that we wanted to do and try different things," agreed Daddario, who plays the sweet, grounded woman Yelchin's drawn to after his ex dies. "That just made it all the more fun. You didn't have the fear of doing something wrong. You didn't have the fear of messing up, because everything could be tried. And that's awesome."
"You can tell how much fun he was having," Daddario added. "He worked for years to get this movie made, and by the time he got to set, he was having so much fun. He is extremely confident, and he wants everyone else to have as much fun as he's having. He knew exactly what he wanted, and when he got it, we'd move on. It was really just an amazing time. I think that's what movies are all about: It's about having fun, and he made it incredibly fun. He's the captain of the ship, and he provided us with the opportunity just to play."
Dante's deep knowledge and understanding of the horror genre left a major impression on Yelchin as he did the research to get into the head of his horror buff role. "I never watched too much horror, because I've been very easily frightened by it," the actor said. "I didn't know so much about the golden age of Hollywood or horror, so I watched all these Universal pictures and Val Lewton pictures, and I came to really love them. I think they're beautiful films. They look beautiful. The DPs that shot them, George Robinson, Karl Freund, Stanley Cortez, people that were magical, people shot what were essentially B-pictures that cost 200 grand or something at the time, and they looked stunning. And they're moody and philosophical like other Hollywood pictures of the same years weren't."
The film also reunited Dante with veteran character actor Dick Miller, a Corman fixture since the 1950s who's worked on every one of Dante's films beginning with his co-directorial debut, "Hollywood Boulevard," in 1976. "It's just one of those things -- it grows and grows. Joe's a swell guy," Miller said with a chuckle, declaring that he's happy to add yet another horror film to his nearly 60-year resume. "I like working in horror films. They give you a chance to get away from everyday life and everyday things."
"It's an amazing cast, and I don't, frankly, know how we got them," Dante declared. "It just was a serendipitous situation that there aren't that many characters in the movie, and these people carry the picture. Luckily, they're all perfect casting: they're very attractive, they're fun to watch, and the two girls, particularly, get to do comedy chop things that they haven't been able to do in other parts, in much bigger movies. I really enjoyed working with them, and I hope to do it again."
Dante makes it clear that, all these films in, the thrill of moviemaking hasn't dimmed in the slightest for him, at any budget. "What's exciting is to be able to put stuff together and actually make something, and get somebody to finance your movie so that you can actually make the movie," he said. "That's the hardest part, now -- putting together the financing. It's an effort, but once you get it together and you get the right cast and you get the right crew, it's definitely worth it."
"Burying the Ex" is available now via Video On Demand.