At the core of indie auteur Jim Jarmusch's The Dead Don't Die is a simple, yet profound question: Is there room in the world for another zombie comedy? Are there any genuine laughs left to be wrung from the lumbering undead? Is there wit (and maybe a little wisdom) to be found in a genre that has produced hundreds-no, thousands-of movies both silly and serious since George A. Romero's Night of the Living Dead (1968)? Are there new angles to be found, new satirical jabs to be landed, new gags to exploit? The answer, unfortunately, seems to be "no," and if Jarmusch's film tells us anything, it is that we might want to lay off this genre for a while. The undead are exhausted.
The Dead Don't Die opened the Cannes Film Festival a few months ago (surely a first for a zom-com), and while it bears many of Jarmusch's familiar cinematic traits, particularly his unique sense of droll humor, too much of it feels like it could have come from anyone looking to take a darkly amusing approach to the horrors of the walking dead. Jarmusch lands some good jokes and the film as a whole is laced with an absurd sense of detached humor, but there is literally nothing about the film that someone else hasn't already done better. As the past few decades have taught us, the zombie film is almost infinitely flexible, allowing for all manner of horror and humor and social observation and satire, which is probably what interested Jarmusch in the first place. Although he is best known for his slow-moving, darkly comic dramas, beginning with his breakout art-house hit Stranger Than Paradise (1984), Jarmusch has been consistently drawn to upending long-cherished genres, including the Western (1995's Dead Man) and the martial arts film and organized crime film (1999's Ghost Dog: Way of the Samurai). Recently, he offered a unique take on the vampire film with Only Lovers Left Alive (2013), so it shouldn't be too surprising that he decided to go after another horror subgenre. The problem with The Dead Don't Die, though, is that Jarmusch's take feel alternately conventional and half-baked, and sometimes downright derivative.
The story takes place in the fictional Ohio town of Centerville, which a large billboard informs us is "A Nice Place to Live" and boasts a population well under 1,000. We are introduced to the town's low-key denizens, including the perpetually bored-looking police chief Cliff Robertson (Bill Murray) and officer Ronnie Peterson (Adam Driver), the latter of whom is given to off-handedly saying, "This will not end well," for reasons that are later revealed in a self-consciously postmodern way. We first meet them as they drive out into the forest to confront the local hermit, aptly named Hermit Bob (Tom Waits), about accusations that he stole chickens from Farmer Frank (Steve Buscemi), an obnoxious bigot in a Trumpian (and grammatically nonsensical) "Keep America White Again" baseball cap. We also meet a trio of scrappy juvenile delinquents (Maya Delmont, Taliyah Whitaker, and Jahi Di'Allo Winston) in the local reformatory and the oddball owner of a gas station/curio shop (Caleb Landry Jones) who offers an easy and obvious repository for pop culture in-jokes and references. The most intriguing (and bizarre) character is Zelda Winston (Tilda Swinton), the town's recently arrived Scottish undertaker who looks like she wandered in from the Rivendell set of The Lord of the Rings and is proficient in wielding a samurai sword. The explanation of her out-of-place weirdness provides the movie its most bizarre narrative turn, although hints are constantly dropped both large and small that the movie is more self-aware than just tongue-in-cheek in its humor (including Ronnie's explanation that the movie's theme song, an old-fashioned country ditty by Sturgill Simpson, is played so constantly because, well, it is the movie's theme song).
The zombies who claw their way out of the grave are explained via "polar fracking," which is throwing the Earth off its axis and causing all manner of weird phenomena, including the sun refusing to set on time. This explanation clearly evokes current real-life concerns about climate change and environmental devastation, key hot-button issues that remain as divisive as ever. This would seem to give the film a political charge and a unique angle, but it mostly resides in the background and feels, much like Farmer Frank's familiar red hat, a bit too obvious and on-the-nose (plus Jorge Grau got there first back in 1974 with his Spanish-Italian zombie movie Let Sleeping Corpses Lie, in which the dead were awakened by a government-supported pesticide program in the English countryside).
Once The Dead Don't Die makes good on its title and Centerville is overrun with the lumbering undead, it turns into a fairly conventional zombie movie, complete with blood and guts. Unlike Edgar Wright's Shaun of the Dead (2006), though, it is never fully invested in its horrors, so the scenes in which zombies take down screaming victims and relieve them of their innards feel pro forma; Jarmusch's heart isn't really in it. He has the zombies mumble about the thing in their previous life that they most cherished ("cooooofffffeeeeee," "wiiiiiiiii-fiiiiiiiiiii," etc.), which is an amusing and pointed critique of shallow western culture-that George A. Romero already hit back in 1978 with Dawn of the Dead, a superior satire that found zombies lumbering into a massive shopping mall. Jarmusch's cast of familiar players gives it their all, with Murray and Driver proving perfectly placid protagonists who seem barely bothered by the carnage around them. Pity poor Chlo Sevigny, though, who gets stuck in the role of their fellow officer who can't deal with the madness around her and spends much of the movie freaking out and basically acting like Barbara in Night of the Living Dead, whom she strongly resembles. Such shout-outs to Romero's masterpiece have the ill effect of reminding us of how generally ineffective The Dead Don't Die is, despite Jarmusch's normally invigorating, off-beat touch.
Copyright © 2019 James Kendrick
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All images copyright © Focus Features
Overall Rating: (2)
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