Dead Don't Die, TheReviewed By alejandroariera
Posted 06/13/19 17:00:00
The idea of a Jim Jarmusch zombie movie raises a whole lot of expectations, not to mention that it draws a bemused smile. Jarmusch, after all, is no stranger to genre fare; he brought his distinctive, sometimes ironic, laidback touch to such genre exercises as the hired killer film (“The Limits of Control” and “Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai”), the vampire film (“Only Lovers Left Alive”) and the Western (“Dead Man,” still his masterpiece). How would he handle a genre that’s been shot in the head countless times by movies, comics and TV series alike? What new ideas could Jarmusch bring to the table? Turns out that none, actually. There is nothing Jarmusch does in “The Dead Don’t Die” that hasn’t already been done better by the likes of the genre’s (as we know it) grandfather George Romero and by the likes of Edgar Wright (“Shaun of the Dead”) and Alejandro Brugués (“Juan of the Dead,” itself a riff on Wright’s film). “The Dead Don’t Die’ may have been conceived as a lark, an alumni reunion for the actors who have worked with Jarmusch in the past. And the film is amusing…for awhile. But it soon wears out its welcome.“The Dead Don’t Die” takes place in the prototypically American, mostly white small town of Centerville, the kind of place where the neighbors not only know each other but also know the recently and not so recently departed. The kind of small town where the police is staffed by three people, the only gas station also serves as the town’s comic book and memorabilia shop, and where farmers wearing “Make America White Again” hats engage in friendly chitchat with one of the town’s few African-American residents at the one and only local diner. It even comes with its very own survivalist hermit, one who seems to be channeling Nick Nolte even though he looks and sounds like Tom Waits (well, he is, reprising here the gruffness of his better written role as a gold hunter in the Coen Brothers’ “The Ballad of Buster Scruggs”).
Things begin to feel a bit off for Deputy Ronni Peterson (Adam Driver) and his boss, Police Chief Cliff Robertson (Bill Murray) as they notice that there is still light outside even though it’s supposed to be nightfall, their watches have stopped, and radio stations seem to be going off the air. “This isn’t going to end well,” Ronnie says on what turns out to be his catchphrase and one of the many meta references sprinkled throughout. This is, after all, the kind of film where Jarmusch is not only playing word games with his characters’ names but also has one of his characters identify the film’s theme song as such when it pops up on the radio.
The remaining radio stations and the one and only newscast the town residents turn to for their news (anchored by one Posie Juárez played by a completely misused Rosie Pérez) report that polar fracking has knocked the Earth of its axis and is the cause of a series of bizarre calamities afflicting the nation. Ronnie astutely identifies these calamities as the coming of a zombie apocalypse. But it takes these creatures close to an hour for these creatures to make their entrance and the first ones do so in the form of Jarmusch’s partner Sara Driver and rock icon Iggy Pop in a bit of typecasting. Both attack the town’s diner, munching on the entrails of the establishment’s owner and waitress before one of them notices a coffee pot and groans “Coffee.” And off they saunter, coffee pot in hand. Because these zombies, like Romero’s before them, hold tight to the memory of those consumer items and activities that seemed to have defined their lives. So these zombies wander down the streets of Centerville, staring at the smartphones ripped from the hands of their victims, muttering “Siri” and “Wifi” or waking up from their jail cell and asking for “Chardonnay.” It may have sounded funny at the time of writing and shooting these scenes, but it isn’t. Instead, it serves as a reminder of how imaginative astute George Romero was in using genre to explore such issues as racism, consumerism and the widening gap between the haves and have-nots in his zombie films. Yes, Jarmusch takes potshots at Trump and the critics of global warming, but he lacks Romero’s (or even Wright’s) satirical punch. Once the zombies make their entrance, “The Dead Don’t Die” turns into another, relatively gory, rather empty and ho-hum genre exercise.
And when it comes to millennial characters, well, let’s say that Jarmusch doesn’t quite know what to do with them. Take, for example, the trio of passersby who stop in the town to get some rest as the zombies attack. Only of them leaves an impression in the audience’s mind: Selena Gómez. And even though she steps up to the challenge of delivering these lines in Jarmusch’s traditional deadpan, the only reason why she stands out is because she ends up being the subject of much ogling by the camera (which can’t stop staring at her ass) and some bizarre and creepy dialogue from Ronnie about how he has “an affinity for Mexicans” after having traveled to Mexico twice. Jarmusch also introduces a trio of African-American juvies imprisoned at the local correctional center, which begs the question: is juvenile delinquency such a huge issue in a town so small? And why are the inmates mostly people of color? Is this another of Jarmusch’s lame attempt at political satire? Their sole purpose is to comment and speculate on what’s happening outside the facility’s walls. But once they manage to escape the center after it’s attacked by zombies…Jarmusch completely forgets about them.
And then there’s Tilda Swinton’s turn as a samurai sword-wielding Scottish-accented alien mortician. Her appearance is amusing, it may even make you smile as she opens her mouth and begins chopping off zombie heads but, again, Jarmusch is too much in love with the idea to do anything imaginative with it.One can’t even call “The Dead Don’t Die” minor Jarmusch. “Coffee and Cigarettes” IS minor Jarmusch. “The Limits of Control” IS minor Jarmusch. At best, “The Dead Don’t Die” is subpar Jarmusch. Conceptually, it reminds me, in a way, of Pedro Almodóvar’s much maligned “I’m So Excited” (2013), a movie that served as a palate cleanser for the director’s wrenching melodramas and genre experiments that preceded it and a transition to the more minimalist work that followed it. But “I’m So Excited” was hilarious and incredibly dark. There was substance underneath all that magnificently kitschy froth. You could also tell that not only Almodóvar and his cast of regulars were having fun, but they were also letting us in on the fun. “The Dead Don’t Die” may have started as a fun project for Jarmusch and his regulars, but one can’t help but feel, as the film plods towards its inevitable fatalistic ending, that he soon grew bored with it. All those meta references and attempts to call attention to the film’s artificiality do little to lessen that feeling in us.
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