THE DEAD DON’T DIE (2019)
Directed by Jim Jarmusch
Written by Jim Jarmusch
Starring Bill Murray, Adam Driver, Tom Waits, Chloë Sevigny, Steve Buscemi, Eszter Balint, Danny Glover, Maya Delmont, Taliyah Whitaker, Jahi Di’Allo Winston, Caleb Landry Jones, RZA, Larry Fessenden, Rosie Perez, Carol Kane, Rosal Colon, Tilda Swinton, Sara Driver, Iggy Pop, Selena Gomez, Austin Butler, Luka Sabbat, Sturgill Simpson, Charlotte Kemp Muhl
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Wow. It’s been a very long time since I’ve been this disappointed in a film. Maybe the STAR WARS prequels? Or A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET the remake? Either way, I really can’t quite fathom why everything in THE DEAD DON’T DIE goes so horribly wrong, but it sure does nevertheless.
Centering around the quiet town of Centerville, THE DEAD DON’T DIE follows a handful of locals doing what they can to survive a zombie apocalypse. Bill Murray and Adam Driver play themselves, basically, meandering around the countryside and backroads trying to figure out what’s going on, chatting with locals, and eventually taking on zombies. Indie darlings Chloe Sevigny, Tom Waits, Steve Buscemi, and Tilda Swinton join other cool actors like Caleb Landry Jones, Rosie Perez, Carol Kane, Iggy Pop, Danny Glover, and more to fight and become zombies.
Maybe I’m missing something. I understand that Jim Jarmush has gone on record as not being a fan of zombie films and that is the reason why he challenged himself to make a movie about them. I think this kind of disdain or at least apathy towards the zombie subgenre shines through in every lackadaisical frame of THE DEAD DON’T DIE. Not being a fan of zombie films most likely means that he hasn’t seen a lot of zombie films. At least that’s what I assumed as I sat through this film as none of the stuff Jarmush comes up with is original or even interesting. Sure it’s fun to see some big stars as, fighting, or be eaten by zombies, but that’s novel and not a reason to make a zombie movie. And even then, it was done in a much more entertaining way in ZOMBIELAND. Even the so-called quirky bits such as the space aliens, samurai warriors, zombies doing things they were used to doing as the living, and bizarre global phenomenon have all been done before in LAND OF THE DEAD, UNDEAD and DEAD ALIVE. To make a zombie film work, you either have to have a good angle, a decent twist, a genuine take on an old concept, or something completely original. Unfortunately, THE DEAD DON’T DIE offers none of that. And I think it’s because Jarmush didn’t care to do enough homework to see that everything he is doing with this film has been done before and better.
What THE DEAD DON’T DIE does offer is more screentime to enjoy with Bill Murrey, an actor I can never get sick of. Though the movie around him doesn’t work, in a look, a phrase, or exasperated sigh—Bill Murray always delivers a performance worth watching. Caleb Landry Jones is quickly becoming the highlight of any film he is in and while Murray is fun to watch, he really seems to be the only actor flexing his thespian muscles in this one as a clerk in a gas station/movie memorabilia shop in the center of the zombie madness. His off-kilter performance is the only one with any form of nuance. I guess it’s fun to see Tilda Swinton as a samurai mortician, but this feels like someone is trying too hard to be quirky rather than anything truly inspired. It’s fun to see Iggy Pop as a zombie, but again, this feels like just a stunt to see a zombified version of someone who is already pretty zombified. The only truly outstanding performance is, as always, Tom Waits. He is an actor who is always fascinating to watch even when, in this case, his character is pretty much just there for manic exposition.
The effects range from great to ho-hum “I’ve seen that before.” There is a fun sequence with Swinton as a samurai that stands out, but most of the time, we get your usual decaying effects on shambling actors. Save for a scene where a diner is besieged by two zombies, there really aren’t a lot of gory attacks.
In place of that gore, we get some humor that is either chuckle worthy or absolute groaners from the pit of your soul. A song is played over the opening credits and then is played again when Driver and Murray turn on their radio in their cruiser. Murray states that the song seems familiar to which Driver resonds, “It’s the music over the credits.” It’s the bland delivery of this line that makes the joke fall out like a wet turd and the rest of the film offers up more of the same maudlin, self-referential routine. This is especially the case during the climax when the script is mentioned and read by one of the characters ahead of time to know how the film ends. It all feels like lazy humor that shows that no one, from actors to filmmakers, are taking anything seriously or even trying to make an entertaining film. It’s as if the actors signed up for the film simply because it was a Jarmush joint, then read the script, realized it was uninspired, and delivered a performance of the same kind.
I’ve enjoyed many a Jim Jarmush movie. GHOST DOG and DEAD MAN are meditative and fantastic to let envelop you. COFFEE & CIGARETTES is like eavesdropping on two people in the most interesting of ways. But man, this one feels like someone tackling subject matter that is beneath him and so, they didn’t feel the need to try very hard. Horror gets enough flack as is. I don’t need a pompous indie filmmaker looking down on it and giving his two cents that are exactly like the change most highbrow cinephiles have already tossed at the zombie genre. I’d love to see a big director tackle this material and bring something new to the table. Many have proven that the zombie can serve as a powerful metaphor. Be it consumerism, materialism, racism, classism, xenophobia, or just simply the fear of death—there are countless films that deal with the subject in humorous, horrifying, and most importantly entertaining ways. THE DEAD DON’T DIE doesn’t even try to do that.