Right from the very beginning, writer/director Jim Jarmusch quickly established himself as the voice of deader than deadpan comedy. So what better genre for him to tackle this time out than an all-out zombie flick? Unfortunately, after years and years of undead stories, The Dead Don’t Die comes off as an amusing trifle at best, and too little too late at worst. Although patently unmemorable and tonally odd, I had a great time watching it.
By assembling a huge cast, most of whom have appeared in his earlier films, Jarmusch gets to coast a little knowing that his actors already understand his style. There’s the added bonus of including a young pop star into the mix, causing me to marvel, “Wow, Selena Gomez gets major points for liking Jim Jarmusch films!” Now, despite having very little to do, she can add street cred to her list. In fact, this film is the cinematic embodiment of street cred.
In the small American town of Centerville, Police Chief Cliff Robertson (Bill Murray) and Officer Ronnie Peterson (Adam Driver) notice a series of strange occurrences, such as watches stopping, the sun not setting, and their local vagrant, Hermit Bob (Tom Waits) starts shooting at them from his lair in the woods. The film’s title song, a catchy country ditty by Sturgill Simpson, seems to come on the radio whenever anyone turns it on. Ronnie even refers to it as the theme song for the movie we’re watching. These odd events and meta-references can only mean one thing…it’s the zombie apocalypse!
Soon, the Officers meet up with fellow cop Officer Mindy Morrison (Chloë Sevigny) and investigate an increasing number of gore-filled attacks. Peterson clocks it right away upon seeing two half-eaten corpses. It’s the work of zombies, or “ghouls”, as he calls them, giving us the best pronunciation of a word in movies in 2019. Into the fray comes Zelda Winston (Tilda Swinton), who wields a katana sword on a level with The Bride from Kill Bill and Michonne from The Walking Dead. I’ll leave her purpose unspoiled, but once again, Swinton brings her otherworldly talents to a film, and we’re all grateful.
The film feels like a bunch of set pieces strung together and lacks any real momentum as far as its plot is concerned. What elevates this tried and true material is Jarmusch’s deadpan approach to every single moment. Prior zombie films, dating back to George Romero, have already explored the idea that the living, blinded by our own narcissism, our consumer culture, or our stupidity, are the real undead, so Jarmusch really only brings his distinctive style. Luckily, he’s great at it, and has Murray and Driver especially well-equipped for the job. They know exactly what movie they’re in with every delicious pause and laconic line reading.
Much of the fun also comes from the stuffed cast, providing us with Love Boat/Poseidon Adventure flashbacks every time we spot another face like Carol Kane, RZA, Iggy Pop (who already looks like a zombie before all the special effects makeup), Rosie Perez, Steve Buscemi (who has cornered the market on playing distinctive jerks), Danny Glover, Caleb Landry Jones, and my favorite sighting, Eszter Balint, the star of Stranger Than Paradise, as, what else, a sassy waitress named Fern. Another Jarmusch stalwart, Sara Driver, delivers some fantastic body language as a coffee loving, post-punk zombie. I could have done without the frequent references to the fact that the characters know they’re in a movie and discuss the process, but I still laughed nonetheless. Sometimes a cheap joke is still funny.
Technically, the film feels appropriately low key. Expect more blank stares than bloodshed, and that’s the point. His longtime cinematographer, Fred Elmes (Paterson, Broken Flowers), keeps things basic, and gets to make something silly for a change. This film doesn’t contain the indelible images he’s given us over his great career, but it shows he, and everyone else, can also relax and just give us a fun, dorky movie.
Jarmusch, for his part, seems more interested in how humans react to a crumbling society than in any action sequence, which are all fairly modest. He’s speaking to the sleeping giant we’ve become, anesthetized to the overload of trauma we experience on a daily basis. We’re all a little dead inside, and if we don’t start chopping things off at the head, we’ll never survive.
GAY SCALE: For each review, I’ll rate the film on my 50 SHADES OF GAY SCALE to let you know how far it tips in our favor. The Dead Don’t Die gets a 0 out of 50. Apparently gay people don’t exist in small towns, even ones stuffed to the gills with every actor who has ever lived playing every type of person who has ever walked the earth, except for gay ones. Maybe it’s a compliment? Maybe Jarmusch means to say that the gays are too amazing to ever succumb to undead terrors? If so, thanks Jim!
By Glenn Gaylord
The Dead Don’t Die is released in UK cinemas 12th July 2019 and in select US theaters now.