The Dead Don't Die
Jim Jarmusch shuffles into the zombie genre, combining an extraordinary cast with his trademark deadpan comedy.
September 26, 2019
What's left to say about zombies? We've had the genre-defining (Night of the Living Dead), the satirical (Dawn of the Dead), the comedic (Shaun of the Dead) and the fast (28 Days Later), plus the slow and romantic (Warm Bodies), the televised (The Walking Dead), and the animated and child-friendly (ParaNorman). We've even had undead Nazis (Dead Snow). In cinema alone, there's been 500-plus zombie films since Victor Halperin's White Zombie way back in 1932, so it's fair to say that genre's brains and heart have been sucked dry. It's almost as if, were the dead actually to rise in 2019, we'd be borderline blasé about it — which brings us to The Dead Don't Die.
Written and directed by Jim Jarmusch, it's a predictably deadpan (ahem) take on zombie films from the opening scene to the last — a story so laconic that it consistently flirts with tedium (but only really lapses into that territory in its final stages). It also boasts a phenomenal cast of Jarmusch regulars, including Bill Murray, Adam Driver, Tilda Swinton, Chloe Sevigny and Steve Buscemi. Joined by Danny Glover, Rosie Perez, Iggy Pop, Sara Driver, RZA, Selena Gomez and Tom Waits, they almost all play larger-than-life characters within the sleepy nowhere town of Centreville.
Jarmusch has always given his characters both time and room to breathe, and The Dead Don't Die provides perhaps the best example. The slow, breezy and downright folksy interactions of his townspeople are a patient delight, often with pauses so long between replies it's like the entire cast of Fargo took sedatives. Be it Glover's kindly hardware store owner, Buscemi's racist farmer or Caleb Landry Jones's film-obsessed petrol attendant, they're a quirky yet homogenous community of oddballs and outsiders, around whom the story takes its time to form.
The standouts are Murray and Driver as Cliff and Ronnie — two-thirds of Centreville's police force and the intermittent Greek chorus of the film. Driver puts in one of his best performances to date, at once shrewd enough to identify zombies as the likely culprits behind some recent killings, while still oblivious to most human sensitivities around him. Murray is in endearing grandfather-esque territory, even if he's not as funny as usual. Together, they hold the threadbare conceit in place when few others could've (polar fracking has knocked the earth off its axis, so... zombies).
Where the film falters, however, is in its self-referential tone. Periodically shattering the fourth wall, Cliff and Ronnie reference The Dead Don't Die's theme song, screenplay and director without any clear reason as to why. The first time is amusing enough, with Murray wondering why the tune on the radio sounds so familiar (answer: it just played during the film's titles), but from that point onwards, the device offers little more than a distraction. The movie's deadpan approach also suffers because of its one clear exception — Chloe Sevigny's Mindy, the third cop in the trio. Oscillating between fear, horror and confusion, her reaction to the zombie uprising is far more appropriate, but cast against Murray and Driver's apathy, it feels hysterical and out of place. Then there's Tilda Swinton's character. We won't spoil it, but her arc is so bonkers, it's a wonder that it was allowed to occur at all.
Overall, this is a tough one to reconcile. The comedy is great, as are the performances, but the story is obtuse at best — and only weakens the longer it goes on. As a genre piece, it's definitely a Jarmusch-directed zombie film, but it isn't distinctive enough in any one respect to stand out from the other hundreds of undead offerings. Mellow for some, underwhelming for others, The Dead Don't Die will split audiences like its ghouls split spleens.
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