Classic Hollywood: Director Joe Dante is a genre success

Director Joe Dante

Director Joe Dante

(Kirk McKoy / Los Angeles Times)

Director Joe Dante is one of the “monster kids” — people who grew up watching the Universal horror films on TV in the 1950s.

“A lot of people from that group ended up being movie producers and even running studios,” said Dante, the director of such classic horror/comedies and sci-fi adventures as 1981’s “The Howling,” 1984’s blockbuster “Gremlins” and 1987’s “Innerspace.”

“The most loyal audience for movies is the horror audience,” noted the 68-year-old Dante, who, like such filmmakers as Francis Ford Coppola, Ron Howard and James Cameron, got his start with the “King of the B’s” indie producer Roger Corman’s New World Pictures.


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“That’s the one audience you can expect will show up the first weekend because they really love this kind of stuff.”

Being a genre director, Dante said, has stood him in good stead the past four decades. Even when he goes into meetings with producers who probably weren’t even born when “Gremlins” was released, they know him and his movies many of which have actually grown in popularity over the years.

“They say, ‘We love you, you’re our favorite director’ — and then they hire somebody younger,” he said, laughing. “But the meetings are usually cordial, and there’s always a lot of respect and admiration for the career, which is a good thing because every once in a while it gets you a job.”

Dante is so passionate about movies he calls his love of cinema a “religion.”

Besides watching “Dracula,” “Frankenstein” and “The Wolf Man” on television growing up in New Jersey, Dante would bike to a local movie theater for the Saturday matinee. “The first boy and girl in line would get in free,” recalled Dante, who charmingingly talked about his life in movies at the American Cinematheque’s Egyptian Theatre.

“If you got in free you could use your quarter for candy. You could buy one popcorn, one soda and two boxes of candy for 25 cents. Those were the days! I was at the movies almost every weekend.”


Dante was so devoted to cinema that while attending the Philadelphia College of Art he put himself somewhat in harm’s way when he’d frequent the ironically named Family Theater.

“It was triple bills,” said Dante. “They would turn up the heat really hot during ‘The Day the Earth Caught Fire,’ so people would drink more. But the rule of thumb at the theater was that you could never go down to the bathroom because legend had it that people had gone down and never came back.”

There was even a stabbing in the middle of a horror film directed by the influential Italian filmmaker Mario Bava.

“Luckily, they didn’t turn the lights on no matter what happened,” said Dante. “So even when the police came, the movie didn’t stop. This was my only chance to see the movie. I moved down to a different part of the theater and was able to still watch.”

Dante’s passion for cinema has infused his films. Part of the fun of watching one of his movies is to pick out his homage to classic films whether it be naming characters after werewolf movie directors in his werewolf classic “The Howling” to cleverly using clips from George Romero’s 1968 zombie thriller “Night of the Living Dead” for a comically gruesome effect in his new zom-com “Burying the Ex,” which is being released in theaters and VOD on June 19.

And his popular “Trailers from Hell” Web series features Dante and several other filmmakers introducing and discussing vintage coming attractions of seminal genre movies.


“Joe is an important director because he has the sophistication and the smarts to simultaneously pull off successful genre films — and spoof them at the same time,” said Stephen Ujlaki, dean of the Loyola Marymont School of Film and Television, via email.

Audiences, he added, “can enjoy his films at a couple of different levels. That’s really hard. He’s also a naturally very funny guy whose films are always enjoyable — and subversive.”

From Wednesday through June 14, the Cinematheque is paying tribute to the filmmaker with “The Atomo-Vision of Joe Dante” retrospective. The festival, which opens with “Gremlins” and the underrated 1990 sequel “Gremlins 2: The New Batch,” will offer a sneak preview of “Burying the Ex” on Thursday with Dante and stars Anton Yelchin and Ashley Greene appearing in person.

Penned by Alan Trezza, “Burying the Ex” is pure Dante. Yelchin plays an unabashed movie geek named Max who discovers his beautiful girlfriend (Greene) is a neurotic control freak after she moves in with him. But he’s afraid he’ll hurt her feelings if he breaks up with her. When she dies in a freak accident, Max moves on and finds love with a spunky yogurt shop owner (Alexandra Daddario). But things get complicated when his late girlfriend returns from the dead and wants to carry on their relationship.

Dante shot the film in L.A. in just 20 days. Greene, who played a vampire in the “Twilight” series, said the director’s “energy is contagious.”

“He is so calm and sweet and then he creates these kind of fantastical, outrageous, quirky, sometimes gruesome worlds. I think if I would have met him on the street, I would never expect him to create these type of films.”


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