Dead Don't Die, TheReviewed By Peter Sobczynski
Posted 06/13/19 15:31:28
There have been so many zombie-related films and television shows that have come along in recent years that I could probably go the rest of my life without seeing another one of them and not feel as if I have missed anything, especially since George Romero, who kickstarted the genre with such classics as “Night of the Living Dead” and “Dawn of the Dead,” is no longer around to make them. That said, when I first heard of the existence of “The Dead Don’t Die,” I could not wait to see it for myself. Yes, it is a zombie horror-comedy, an offshoot almost as tiresome these days as more straightforward takes, but it is one from the mind of writer-director Jim Jarmusch, who has proven himself to be one of the most consistently intriguing and unique American independent filmmakers since making his big breakthrough with the 1984 low-budget classic “Stranger Than Paradise.” In addition, it also contains one of the most eyebrow-raising casts to appear in any sort of film in a long time, including the likes of Bill Murray, Adam Driver, Chloe Sevigny, Danny Glover, Steve Buscemi, Iggy Pop, Tom Waits, Selena Gomez, Rosie Perez and, perhaps inevitably, Tilda Swinton. You would think that any film bringing together a collection of talents of that caliber would have to be interesting by default—I would personally pay a great deal of money to see a documentary of this group sitting down to have lunch one day during the shoot—but despite the amount of unique personalities at its disposal, the film never quite manages to generate one of its own. It isn’t a disaster by any means and it does contain a number of laughs and good individual moments but it never quite gets around to pulling them together in an interesting way that might make it seem like something more than a hipster version of “The Cannonball Run.”The film is set in the small town of Centerville, presumably a real nice place to raise your kids up. This is a burg that David Lynch might have rejected for one of his movies on the basis that it was simply too square for him—it contains the requisite folksy diner, single gas station (which also inexplicably double as the local horror movie memorabilia joint) and hardware store and when local cops Cliff (Murray) and Ronnie (Driver) roll up, it is to investigate whether the town lone derelict (Waits) has killed and eaten a chicken belonging to an obnoxious racist farmer (Buscemi). Things are so bucolic, in fact, that while they are driving back into town, Cliff and Ronnie only gradually begin to notice that something is not quite right, beginning with the fact that it is still broad daylight outside even though it is long past when sunset should have occurred. There is some vague talk on the radio and television about how the new government policy of “polar fracking” may have caused the earth to get thrown off of its axis and how this may inspire strange developments but neither they nor anyone else in town seems to give this news much mind.
Before long, those strange developments include the dead rising from the grave with the first couple of zombies (Pop and Sara Driver) heading over to the diner to snack on the manager and a waitress during the night, washing them down with several cups of coffee. After being called in to investigate, Carl and fellow cop Mindy (Sevigny) are stumped as to what could have killed them but Ronnie is closer to detecting the truth—“I’m thinking zombies”—and proclaims his suspicions that things are not going to end well. His suspicions are soon confirmed and as the onslaught of the dead slowly—very slowly—begins to spread around town, the three finally begin to take action to stop things even though it may already be too late. Meanwhile, the town’s new mortician, Zelda (Swinton), proves to be fairly resourceful in fighting off the zombies as well—her accent suggests she is Scottish but she eventually proves to hail from somewhere a little further away than that.
Throughout his career, Jarmusch has often used particular cinematic sub-genres as an entry point for his own distinct and unusual narratives—his filmography includes oddball takes on westerns (his classic “Dead Man”), samurai stories (“Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai”), espionage dramas (“The Limits of Control”) and vampire stories (“Only Lovers Left Alive”). In nearly all of those cases, he has taken the basic tropes of those genres and has had a certain amount of fun with the expectations that they raise in the minds of viewers while at the same time utilizing them to offer stories filled with pointed social, cultural, economic and political commentary as well as a certain amount of absurdist humor. Some of these films accomplished this more successfully than others but even in the lesser ones, you always had at least some sort of sense of what Jarmusch was going for and why he elected to use such familiar genre frameworks as a structure for his stories. There are a lot of problems with “The Dead Don’t Die” but the biggest one is that there never seems to be any real purpose for any of it. From the outset, it is clear that Jarmusch has no interest in providing the usual elements one normally finds in zombie films—the blood and guts are kept to a minimum (when the ghouls are dispatched here, they poof into dust) and even the seemingly big death scenes are largely kept off camera—and while that is fine, he doesn’t replace them with anything that is of much interest. Early on in the proceedings, there are a couple of pointed digs at the myriad ways in which mankind is blithely messing with the environment in potentially catastrophic ways and how the majority of people serenely refuse to admit that there is a problem until it literally pops up and tries to take a bite out of them. The trouble here is that utilizing zombies as a symbol for our current societal ills is not exactly new—it was exactly this aspect that gave Romero’s films such a kick in the first place—and Jarmusch never manages to find a new angle from which to approach the proceedings as they unfold. (One of the big jokes is the notion that the zombies roam around muttering the names of things they consumed the most when alive—coffee, chardonnay, WiFi—and while it is amusing at first, it grows tiresome when repeated and doesn’t hold a candle to Romero’s savage take on the consumers mindset in “Dawn of the Dead.”).
Another problem with the film is the self-referential tone that Jarmusch applies to the material—not only is it self-aware about the ins and outs of the zombie movie genre, the characters themselves seem to understand that they are all just part of a movie as well. Like pretty much everything else in the film, this is a conceit that is amusing at first—there is a good running gag about the film’s omnipresent title song by Sturgill Simpson that pops up throughout the film in a number of different contexts—but which soon wears out their welcome. Things go especially off the rails in the second half when Jarmusch, having apparently run out the things he wanted to say via his zombie premise, decides to embrace a bizarre meta-movie approach that adds yet another ultimately alienating element to the proceedings. Not only does it not work on its own—it is a conceit that is way too overt for its own good—the additional level of ironic self-awareness will only remind most viewers of films like “Shaun of the Dead,” “Planet Terror” and “Zombieland” that wore their self-awareness on their sleeves but still managed to create engaging and interesting stories at the same time.This is a shame because “The Dead Don’t Die” is not an entirely terrible movie when all is said and done. Virtually all the members of Jarmusch’s sprawling cast get a moment or two to shine (although he is playing largely a straight role, Murray's dryer-than-dust line readings are often amusing and Adam Driver’s pronunciation of “ghouls” is worth the price of admission by itself—or it would have been in a better movie). In the hands of a more ordinary filmmaker, I might have been a little more forgiving of its essential unevenness but coming from someone as supremely talented as Jim Jarmusch, it just feels like we are bearing witness to the sight of a great artist simply farting around with a bunch of his pals and trying to pass it off as somehow being significant based almost entirely on his considerable reputation. The end result is basically a private joke between the filmmaker and his friends, one that plays well enough within the confines of a two-minute trailer but which comes across as aimless, formless and lacking in energy and humanity as the zombies themselves as a 90-minute feature.
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