The Dead Don’t Die is Jim Jarmusch’s love letter to George Romero. The iconoclastic indie director twists his usual sardonic gaze upon the common tropes of zombie films (the mantra is “kill the head” as a way of vanquishing the foes), and Jarmusch’s goal is to set a desiccating look at the underpinnings of undead mythology.
With an all-star cast that includes Jarmusch regulars and newcomers alike, including Bill Murray, Adam Driver, Tilda Swinton, Iggy Pop, RZA, Sara Driver, Chloë Sevigny, Selena Gomez, Caleb Landry Jones, Rosie Perez, Danny Glover, Steve Buscemi, and (perhaps the most effective in the cast) Tom Waits. This is an incredible assemblage of talent all there to bring this vision to the fore, one where things are just a little bit quieter and the pace just a little bit slower than your usual ghoulish romp.
In the town of Centerville there are three police officers (Sevigny, Murray and Driver) who must help respond to the call of duty when the zombie apocalypse descends into their town. The reason for the rising of the undead is due to “polar fracking”, resulting in the tilting of the Earth’s orbit and alteration of when daylight takes place. It’s the kind of panicky mumbo jumbo that usually litters these types of films, but here the underlying drama seems even more ridiculous than usual.
Romero’s own allegories were far from subtle, but here Jarmusch gently but deliberately hammers themes about racial animus, mass consumerism and ecological despair to varying effect. Take Buscemi’s character, a wild farmer worried that his chickens have been stolen by a local hermit (Waits in a resplendent beard, a fine look shared in part by his giddy prospector in the Coens’ Ballad of Buster Scruggs). At a diner he’s seen wearing a red hat with white writing that spells out “Make America White Again”, a less-than-subtle gag that feels more awkward than acutely denigrating of current political norms. A bemused Danny Glover talks amiably with Steve’s character, only raising his eyebrows a little when the farmer complains his coffee is “too black” (meant, we’re told, too strong).
It’s these groan-worthy, overt call-outs to the general themes of this type of film that’s meant to inject some knowing levity, but instead it all falls horribly flat. There are plenty of instances where the fourth wall is broken – talking of the theme song by Sturgill Simpson that plays incessantly, or even comments about the script that lead to calls of eventual doom – but these simply don’t connect the way they should. At best they rise to the level of a wry smile, but never near the kind of mind-churning, lovely surrealism of Only Lovers Left Alive. Looking back, it’s maybe the Murray starrer Broken Flowers that has the similar feeling of misfire, another work by this director with terrific ingredients that never coalesces.
I love that Jarmusch got to make this film, distributed as a studio picture no-less as part of the Focus/Universal banner. Too often these stories get relegated to smaller outlets, and it shows that risks are still willing to be taken. Alas, it’s hard to see how a general audience is going to connect with this film at all. It’s trying so hard to be clever, droll and referential all at once that it collapses into a kind of self-parody it simply can’t sustain.
Still, there are moments of glory. Waits as the seer/chorus does much with little, and Tilda’s wonderful oddness – buttressed here as a katana-wielding Scotswoman who walks with precision from her funeral home to the heart of the battle – is pretty fantastic. There are glimpses of the maddening mundaneness that made Coffee and Cigarettes such a thrill, twisting quotidian banality to near operatic lengths.
Yet here this ambition crumbles, leaving nothing but a pile of hoary jokes, tired tropes and broken, headless bodies. The Dead Don’t Die is a missed opportunity at playfully toying with the expectations and common plot elements of the zombie genre. Frankly, working with Vampires in Only Lovers gave far more for the director to work with, the over-the-top gothic air perfect for his kind of gauzy vision. Rather than “elevating” a genre, this latest film never lands its blows, resulting a film more redundant than remarkable. It’s still a film worth contending with, as are all works from his canon, but alas, this latest from Jarmusch feels like a toothless jab at an already tired zombie trend.
/Film Rating: 5.5 out of 10
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