The Dead Don't Die
Jim Jarmusch’s The Dead Don’t Die has all the parts to make a terrific film – a stellar cast, a smart and resilient indie director, and a cinematically literate tale about the undead that should appease fans of George Romero. Instead, like the corpses that litter the ground, the bits never quite assemble in a way that feels right or natural.
The concept of the reanimated dead can feel Gothic (think Frankenstein) rather than simply ghoulish, but Romero’s impact on the horror genre was to inject political metaphor into his thrillers. This wasn’t entirely groundbreaking, but the effectiveness of using hordes of undead to implicate late-1960s race relations, or consumerism and rampant capitalism in later films, imbued the films with more than their B-movie leanings would normally ascribe.
The Dead Don’t Die toys with these thematic undertones, making explicit metatextual references to Romero, from a ’60s Pontiac Le Mans car echoing Night of the Living Dead to other, more subtle callbacks. This is all shaped by a droll, dry wit that has characterized Jarmusch’s work for decades. Just as the zombie hordes traipse slowly and inexorably, so does this slow-build comedy deliberately revel in the surrealism of its story.
Checking off the usual elements of any small-town zombocalpyse film, the Americana settings of the police station, the diner, the motel and the cemetery all appear almost like constructed sets in their purely iconic states.
The cast is immense. Bill Murray, Adam Driver, and Chloë Sevigny play the local constabulary. Tilda Swinton is the local funeral home owner. RZA shows up as a “WU-PS” driver. Iggy Pop and Sara Driver are the first two undead to emerge. Selena Gomez plays a “hipster.” Caleb Landry Jones is a Hobbit-like shopkeep. Rosie Perez is a news anchor. Danny Glover is the hardware store owner. Steve Buscemi is a hick farmer wearing a “Make America White Again” hat, and Tom Waits is the local hermit who watches the goings-on through a cracked set of binoculars.
There’s a lot to revel in a cast like that, and the anticipation for all this talent playing within Jarmusch’s playground is tantalizing. Unfortunately, despite this incredible mix, things just never connect. Getting the tone right is hard, and rather than come across as a sly undercutting of our narrative expectations, it feels more like a slog. The jokes land heavily, interspersed between moments of quiet discomfort.
Jarmusch has already taken a swipe at horror movies. His Only Lovers Left Alive was a unique and refreshingly original take on vampire lore. Yet despite some fourth-wall breaking and allusions to other zombie films (“kill the head” is the central repeated theme), it just never comes together.
Driver and Murray outpace themselves with the laconic delivery each is known for, but they don’t have much to say to cut through the dread. Other aspects, from the Hobbit digs at Landry to the casual racism of Buscemi’s character, feel less like satire than just touchstones that need to be added to spice up the proceedings.
Only Waits as the loony hermit and a committed, sword-wielding Swinton truly shine. They embody the inherent weirdness of the story in a more over-the-top way, while those underplaying the events don’t have enough to hold onto. When the moments of slaughter come, they feel strangely unmoving.
The Dead Don’t Die is ambitious but overall a missed opportunity. It lacks the zing of a Shaun of the Dead to poke fun while paying respect to the genre. Jarmusch’s style is to underplay everything, and with Driver and Murray in particular, he has excellent tools to stretch this dry comedy to its breaking point. Unfortunately, we’re left feeling like the whole movie is a skit that’s gone on too long and doesn’t say enough original about the things it’s making fun of. That’s very disappointing given both its pedigree and the capabilities of all involved.