A film review by Craig J. Koban June 25, 2019

THE DEAD DON'T DIE jj

2019, R, 103 mins.

 

Bill Murray as Cliff Robertson  /  Adam Driver as Ronald Peterson  /  Tilda Swinton as Zelda Winston  /  ChloŽ Sevigny as Mindy Morrison  /  Steve Buscemi as Farmer Miller  /  Danny Glover as Hank Thompson  /  Caleb Landry Jones as Bobby Wiggins  /  Rosie Perez as Posie Juarez  /  Iggy Pop as Coffee Zombie  /  Sara Driver as Coffee Zombie  /  RZA as Dean  /  Carol Kane as Mallory O'Brien  /  Selena Gomez as Zoe  /  Tom Waits as Hermit Bob

Written and directed by Jim Jarmusch

THE DEAD DON'T DIE is a new zombie themed effort that felt more like a bizarre and frequently frustrating to endure curiosity piece than it did a fully fledged and realized horror comedy.  

The fact that it boasts an impressively assembled and eclectic cast and the idiosyncratic writer/director Jim Jarmusch at the creative helm made my enthusiasm going in exceedingly high.  THE DEAD DON'T DIE is laced with wanton weirdness, to be sure, but it's rarely as consistently funny or scary as it should have been, and the film's laid back tone (make that very laid back tone) kind of hurts its overall effectiveness.  THE DEAD DON'T DIE coasts by on sheer creepy oddness, but not much else, and it ultimately does very little to segregate itself apart from a very overstuffed and diluted genre. 

I really appreciated the slow burn build-up in this film, though, but not necessarily its final follow through.  THE DEAD DON'T DIE is much more refreshingly low key and understated than most zombie survival thrillers, and that overall tone is a pitch perfect marriage to stars like Bill Murray, who's an absolute master of dry, deadpan delivery.  It could be easily said that Jarmusch isn't so much interested in following the obligatory path of so many previous films about the undead, and he doesn't seem to be in much of a rush to get to the barbaric violence and gore either.  And THE DEAD DON'T DIE is pretty ambitious in terms of its bargain bin level budget (Jarmusch is commendably trying to pull off a lot here with limited financial resources).  Unfortunately, though, this film is tonally all over the proverbial map, and sometimes it sharply transitions from pure horror to self-parody to the point of inspiring whiplash in viewers.  THE DEAD DON'T DIE has this wonderful vibe of randomness that gives the film a breezy nature in parts, but, in the end, Jarmusch seems to be dabbling into far too many divergent themes and ideas, and none of them gel together with any reasonable levels of fluidity.   

 

 

We are quickly introduced to the small and quaint town of Centralville, PA, which has a small population of under a thousand people and seems like it's in the middle of nowhere apart from the rest of society.  Among these citizens are the local and aging Chief of Police in Cliff (Murray) and his deputies Ronnie (Adam Driver) and Mindy (Chloe Sevigny), all of whom are essentially the audience conduit into the madness that's about to transpire.  Jarmusch populates the town with a motley crew of other colorful, yet one note stereotypes, like the Donald Trump loving racist (Steve Buscemi), the local African American hardware store owner (Danny Glover), the comic book and pop culture fanatic (Caleb Landry Jones), a displaced hermit that lives in the wild (Tom Waits) and an extremely peculiar town mortuary owner (Tilda Swinton), who has - shall we say - strange behavior patterns and is conveniently proficient with a samurai sword.   

The film leisurely guides us through all of these character introductions and then begins to establish the unnatural course of events that starts happening all around them.  The citizens start to notice odd things, like how their watches stop working and the fact that they seem to be having an abnormal amount of daylight late into the day.  Deputy Ronnie seems convinced that this is building towards something awful and that "Things are sure to end badly," whereas the unflappable chief takes it all in stride.  But then things start getting awfully sinister, like all cell phones losing their signals and commercial radio going haywire (except for one station that perplexing plays Sturgill Simpson's "The Dead Don't Die" on what seems like an eerie and endless loop).  Then, through the news reports the town does get, we learn that the Earth has been kicked out of its axis by "polar fracking," which has not only caused some serious problems for the planet, but is single handedly responsible for re-animated the dead from the graves.  And once flesh eating zombies of all varieties start to wander through Centralville, Chief Cliff begins to realize the severity of what's happening. 

There are some nice touches and homages to past great zombie films that Jarmusch places through the film, like, for instance, how a group of young hipsters (one played by Selena Gomez) drive into town in a 1968 Pontiac, a direct reference to the year George A. Romero's THE NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD premiered.  The ghouls in THE DEAD DON'T DIE also act in a very Romero-like fashion, and Jarmusch shows some inspired casting with these monsters, like Iggy Pop playing one member of the undead that still has a fixation of the local diner's coffee.  Most of the zombies are usually delegated to speaking one word grunts of what meant the most to them in their past lives, which is the most the film does at giving these creatures any personality.  They are of the slow and lumbering fashion, which is old school, to be sure, but I've always found them to be more methodically unnerving than fast running zombies. 

THE DEAD DON'T DIE also benefits from a quirky vibe throughout, and Jarmusch gets a considerable amount of comedic mileage simply from his actors, some of which generate some good laughs at just how nonchalantly they respond to their town's dire, life and death situation.  Bill Murray in particular is absolutely in his safe performance wheelhouse here, but he's so damn good at playing his roles so bone dry that he scores most of the funniest bits in the movie just from his blank faced reactions to the escalating hopelessness that plagues Centralville.  He's really well matched with Adam Driver, who echoes Murray's laconic and plain spoken line readings and seems to be just amusingly going with the flow of knowing that he's probably not going to make it out of the town alive.  And then there's Tilda Swinton, who not only has ample opportunities to decapitate many a zombie with her swordsmanship, but she also joyously cranks up her character's indescribable peculiarity to inspired levels. 

I only wished, though, that Jarmusch's overall game plan here with this material was a bit more disciplined and cohesive.  THE DEAD DON'T DIE sometimes comes off as a film where everything but the kitchen sink was thrown at the screen in hopes that it'll all somehow stick.  I liked this film's strangeness, but not how it incredulously delves into individual moments of incongruent self awareness, all of which simply felt out of place and from a whole different movie altogether.  There are some instances when characters reflect with one another that they are indeed completely conscious of the fact that they're populating a movie.  If THE DEAD DON'T DIE was trying to be an all out parody of zombie films, this approach would make sense, but Jarmusch sprinkles in so very few of these aforementioned moments with characters breaking the fourth wall and commenting on the movie they're trapped in that they're more distracting than funny.  Jarmusch himself is even name dropped both Driver and Murray's characters at one point.  Silly?  Yes?  Momentarily funny?  Sure.  Hopelessly out of place?  Absolutely. 

I remember one of the greatest zombie films ever made in Romero's DAWN OF THE DEAD, where he used the creatures as a source of social commentary about the nature of the mindlessly of consumer culture run afoul (that film's zombies - that lumbered through one store to the next in an abandoned mall - had obvious satiric and thematic value).  Jarmusch sets up THE DEAD DON'T DIE as a parable about environmental disaster in referencing to polar fracking and climate change, but he never really successfully lingers on it or develops it further on any satisfying or enthralling levels.  Then there's the beyond obvious manner that Jarmusch comments on white nationalism and Trump supporters, like having Buscemi's character wearing a hat with the phrase "Make America White Again."  There's a potentially intriguing angle to this racist's friendship with Glover's hardware store owner, but the film kind of lazily tosses it away as soon as it introduces it.  And don't even get me started with how Jarmusch concludes Swinton's character's story arc, which is one of the most deeply unsatisfying, WTF reveals I've seen in a movie this year. 

In closing, the biggest issue with this film is that it's just not as hysterically engaging as other horror comedies, like the infinitely better ZOMBIELAND or the iconic SHAUN OF THE DEAD, both films that found newfangled inspiration in telling old genre stories in revitalizing ways.  THE DEAD DON'T DIE has simply too many scattershot laughs to be a memorable comedy and contains not enough genuine scares to be considered a horror film of lingering power.  The film is like an experiment for Jarmusch to dip his fingers in cinematic waters uncharted by him before, and he seems equal to the task early on, but seems disinterested in paying his creative choices off in any fulfilling manner.  And when relatively compared to oh-so-many past zombie films, there's simply not enough - ahem! - meat on the bones of THE DEAD DON'T DIE for audiences to sink their teeth into and savor. 

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