From its first announcement I could see hipster filmmaker Jim Jarmusch’s “The Dead Don’t Die” running into problems with two distinct audiences. I could see it being far too Jarmusch-like (weird, dry, and off-beat) for many modern day moviegoers. At the same time I figured many Jarmusch aficionados would find it too lightweight and mainstream when compared to the filmmaker’s past works.
Personally, I’m a big fan of Jarmusch and this film has all the ingredients to be one of my favorites of the year. And while there are several things I like about this wacky zombie satire, it never really gets its footing and it’s hard to see it as anything more than Jarmusch dabbling in a new genre. There are several things he seems to be attempting to say, but none of it has any bite and most of it feels shallow and even a bit smug.
The film takes place in the cozy little town of Centerville, population 738. The welcome sign even reads “A Real Nice Place” so what could go wrong? Jarmusch spends a lot of time taking us around to meet the idiosyncratic townsfolk. Few are given any depth and many are simply set up to eventually become zombie fodder. Order is kept by Police Chief Cliff Robertson (Bill Murry) and Officer Ronnie Peterson (Adam Driver). The two ride around town revealing the numerous locations we will be seeing again: the diner, the motel, the cemetery, the juvenile detention center, the gas station, and so on.
A star-studded and totally game cast fill out Jarmusch’s haughty vision of middle America. Tilda Swinton is the Scottish samurai sword wielding undertaker. Steve Buscemi’s Farmer Miller is a Trump-supporting bumpkin. Caleb Landry Jones runs the gas station/geek memorabilia shop. Tom Waits is the shaggy and homeless town hermit. Danny Glover owns the hardware store. Larry Fessenden runs the Moonlight Motel. A few other faces are sprinkled throughout including a hipster threesome led by Selena Gomez who are passing through Centerville at the worst possible time.
So about the zombies. In Jarmusch’s world the zombie apocalypse isn’t spawned from a passing comet or a viral outbreak. Nope, instead polar fracking knocks the earth off its axis causing the day/night cycle to go haywire, animals to disappear, our phones to go out, and eventually the rise of the innard-eating dead. The citizens of Centerville certainly notice the changes, but they’re either too dense or too ensnared in Jarmusch’s deadpan trappings to make much of it. Their dry, puzzled responses make for some of the movie’s funnier moments.
Jarmusch movies are known for their mellow pacing and laconic dialogue as well as their unique ways of embracing human eccentricities. “The Dead Don’t Die” features all of those traits. The difference here is with how the film meanders at times with no discernible purpose. In his previous films Jarmusch was able to maintain a steady connection to his characters even during his most leisurely moments of storytelling. We never have any real connections to any of these characters. And Jarmusch doesn’t seem to be embracing the eccentricities as much as he is just making fun of them.
That doesn’t mean all of our time spent with these characters is bad. Quite the opposite actually. But it’s mostly due to the performances more than the material. Easily the best scenes are the ones we spend with Driver and Murry. The two have a seamlessly funny chemistry and I found myself laughing without them saying a word. Chloë Sevigny is a great compliment playing Chief Cliff’s junior officer. The three of them together shouldn’t make any community feel safe but they’re plenty good at delivering laughs.
It’s also a hoot watching the supporting cast have fun with their characters regardless of how little depth they may have. Buscemi is able to mine some laughs out of a role that is strictly there for some fashionable but toothless MAGA bashing. Swinton can do ‘weird’ in her sleep and she gets the wackiest character of the bunch. And I really do love seeing Danny Glover popping up in these easy-going, low-key roles. Oh, and Iggy Pop credited as “Coffee Zombie” – magical.
So again, there are things to really enjoy about “The Dead Don’t Die”. When the humor lands well it can be pretty funny and it’s a blast seeing so many familiar faces (By the way, can we all agree that Adam Driver is one of the best and most diverse actors working today?). But sadly the whole thing comes across as aimless right up to its groan-worthy ending. There are several inside jokes and some pasted on commentary about us being the zombies clutching to our materialism and technology. But it has no bite whatsoever. So we’re left with the cast who are enough to save the film but just barely.
VERDICT – 3 STARS