The Dead Don't Die: killing time at the end of the world
While watching The Dead Don’t Die, it’s hard to shake the feeling that this has been done before, and better. And in a lot of ways it has. I’d even venture to say that the amount of zombie comedies in existence probably rivals the amount of straight zombie movies by this point. To have Jim Jarmusch toss his hat into the genre feels redundant. What can the master of hangout movies do with such a tired concept besides fill it with a remarkable cast? Not much, per the marketing materials, which take the angle of “Can you believe this cast?!?”
The thing is, this is a retread of well-worn material. This is a movie that coasts almost entirely on its cast. This is, by all metrics, an absolutely pointless exercise in wasting time. But it’s also really, really funny. Mostly in dumb ways, but arranged and executed by a bonafide weirdo. At 66, Jim Jarmusch is as strange as he ever was, and for the past few years he’s been pumping out some of his finest work. His previous dip into the macabre, the vampire talkie Only Lovers Left Alive, is a personal favorite. But even the most tuned-in weirdo can’t help but grow slightly out of touch with age. Comedy shifts as time passes. It’s how dad jokes are made.
To say The Dead Don’t Die feels “out of touch” isn’t inaccurate, but what a pointless term to affix to a filmmaker like Jarmusch, whose entire being is that of an outsider. Plus, who doesn’t like a good dad joke? This goofy curiosity is mostly funny, always entertaining, and just weird enough to feel unique amidst a sea of similar films. I prefer to think of this film less as a commentary on the zombie genre, and more as a vessel through which Jarmusch could present a collection of great unused bits for which he otherwise couldn’t find a home.
The Dead Don’t Die takes place in the small town of Centerville. Officers Cliff Robertson (Bill Murray) and Ronnie Peterson (Adam Driver) are stuck pulling double duty when citizens start dying in gruesome ways. You see, “polar fracking” has altered the Earth’s rotation, which has somehow led to the dead coming back to life. We follow a handful of characters as the undead invasion engulfs their small town. Mostly, the film unspools as a parade of comic set-pieces populated with goofy gags and loose threads of commentary (polar fracking being the obvious stand in for our current global climate situation). Much like the Romero movies it’s borrowing mythology from, The Dead Don’t Die criticizes consumerism (the zombies are drawn to their phones), the political climate (Steve Buscemi wears a hat that says “Keep America White Again”), and the notion that ignorance of the bigger picture isn’t necessarily bliss — an idea that my preferred Romero jaunt, Day of the Dead, makes disgustingly clear. And if you don’t pick up on the thematic stuff, Tom Waits’ Hermit Bob will explain it to you multiple times.
Amidst the light commentary is an unending parade of jokes, many which could be categorized (per Ryan) as “Muppet humor.” To give you a sense of what we’re working with, Rosie Perez plays a frequently distraught newscaster named Posie Juarez. RZA plays a package delivery driver who works for “Wu-PS.” No, The Dead Don’t Die is not above a few groans, but these groans are valid an earned. What better way to make an audience consider their adjacency to the undead than a collective groan?
An odd choice that I’ve come to appreciate in hindsight is the minimal use of blood. One trick that all zombie movies use, and most zombie comedies embrace, is the liberal application of splatter effects. While there is a fair amount of violence on display here, the zombies don’t bleed. Instead their, um, corpses emit a cloud of black smoke. It’s an effective choice that feels at first like a cheap way to avoid making a mess on set. Upon further consideration, this choice separates this film from others like it by illustrating how disinterested it is in commenting on genre convention. It also bolsters my guess that this film’s function is as an outlet for everything Jarmusch came up while stoned and exhausted between projects.
I a a bit disappointed that the film is not interested in subversion, mostly because in avoiding any real story (and dipping into metatextual material with middling success) we don’t get very interesting characters. Certainly, these characters are colorful and silly (Adam Driver’s masterfully deadpan line delivery makes Officer Ronnie a standout) but they don’t have any staying power. This is most apparent in Chloe Sevigny’s Officer Mindy Morrison. Sevigny is an incredible actress who gives the most layered performance of the film. She’s the one character that seems steeped in the real world, and as such, her reactions to everything are the most thoroughly hilarious. Yet on paper, she is given little to do. It’s a shame too, since Mindy seems primed to have the biggest and baddest third act turn imaginable. Unfortunately, this turn never comes.
I’d feel weird coming to the end of this review without mentioning Tilda Swinton, who puts on a truly demented performance as the Zelda Winston, Centerville’s samurai sword-wielding coroner. So I’ll just say that she’s fantastic. You knew that already.
It’s like you read the script or something.
The Dead Don’t Die opens in Philly theaters this evening.