Flaunting one of the most delicious ensemble casts to grace a zombie film, Jim Jarmusch’s The Dead Don’t Die promised to be an off-beat remedy to an oversaturated sub-genre. Applying his signature oddball style and dreamy Americana to genre cinema, Jarmusch’s first horror comedy is an eclectic but faulted feature.
In the sleepy town of Centerville, the dead start crawling out their graves: seemingly revived by polar fracking. Hermit Bob (Tom Waits) wanders the outskirts of town surveying the creeping chaos. Chief Robertson (Bill Murray), Officer Peterson (Adam Driver), and Officer Morrison (Chloe Sevigny) do their best to manage the madness.
Weirdly The Dead Don’t Die is a film which feels tired of itself. Jarmusch’s muted, inevitable, nihilism makes for dodgy viewing. The humour is dry and the pace – laid back to the point of comatose – makes it a sleepy watch. For a while, that bored-with-it-all approach comes off as a twist of postmodernism. An early scene has Murray’s Chief of police remarking on the familiarity of a song playing on a car radio. Driver’s character responds that he should know it because it’s the theme song of the movie. Another scene sees Driver admit that Jim let him see the whole script so, unlike Murray, he knows how the film ends.
Jarmusch’s cheeky wall-breaking sets a tone for the film: he isn’t trying to persuade us this is anything other than a fiction. He’s actively batting off the “realism” of many contemporary zombie flicks like World War Z or Train to Busan. An off-kilter performance from Tilda Swinton (here playing an odd Scottish mortician) provides laughs and possibly the film’s oddest most alienating twist. It’s a film which feels totally done before, but also refreshing in others. Jarmusch’s contempt for newer, perhaps grittier, zombie films (he professes to not be a zombie fan) is apparent in the references he makes and doesn’t make.
Caleb Landry Jones (Antiviral) stars as the local gas station attendee and vendor of cult memorabilia, he wears a Night of the Living Dead badge and has an affinity for zombie movies. His knowledge keeps him relatively safe. Like Romero’s iconic zombies, Jarmusch’s are never-sated dawdling (not sprinting) consumers, distracted by iPhones, fashion, and coffee cravings.
You could say the film was densely political, but its simple surface-level stuff. Jarmusch’s zombies emerge from their graves after the planet’s rotation is thrown off by polar fracking. Buscemi’s cranky farmer sports a ‘Make America White Again’ baseball cap, but seems to be friendly with Danny Glover’s kindly store runner. It’s one of a few pointed criticisms The Dead Don’t Die summons; to poke at the oblivious polarised nature of contemporary America. Only, there’s not much else said on that point. It’s more of an era anchor than a real rumination.
So here’s the rub: Jarmusch has diddly-squat to add to Romero’s scathing anti-capitalist dialogue. Aside from environmental commentary and a vague update of Romero’s original points. His film offers no new takes; its savviness is skin-deep, more of a vehicle for a cast experiment. Now, the charms of the cast, and dialogue, are many. The humour is often great. But there’s not really enough going to merit the film’s birth. Or your attention.
An average film with an above average cast, Jarmusch’s The Dead Don’t Die is daft and lovable at points, but for seasoned horror fans and zombie officianados, it will seem hopelessly underwhelming.
Dir. Jim Jarmusch
Stars. Bill Murray, Adam Driver, Tom Waits, Chloe Sevigny, Steve Buscemi, Danny Glover, Caleb Landry Jones, RZA, Larry Fessenden, Rosie Perez, Tilda Swinton