Dir: Jim Jarmusch
Jim Jarmusch is an acquired taste, one I never discovered with the exception of Only Lovers Left Alive. Having liked that and being a big horror fan, I was quietly encouraged by Jarmusch returning to the horror genre and by the fact that many fans haven’t liked The Dead Don’t Die. On this occasion, the fans were right.
In the town of Centerville, the dead are coming back to life. Police Chief Cliff (Bill Murray), his officers Ronnie and Mindy (Adam Driver and Chloe Sevigny) along with several townsfolk, including the scottish samurai (Tilda Swinton) who has just taken over the funeral home, must fight back.
It takes a while for The Dead Don’t Die to become a zombie movie. Before it does, Jarmusch trades in comedy so deadpan that it feels inert. It might be interesting that the townspeople all speak in the same near monotone and that everything feels so low energy if that played in to the horror aspects of the film, but if Jarmusch is trying to do this it simply doesn’t come across. The overwhelming feeling is one of awkwardness. Things are static, with characters often standing in place and seeming to deliver lines in the manner of a first table read. This does not help even the better jokes play, and makes every scene feel as if it lasts twice as long as it actually does. Again, if this felt intentional, like a satirical take on the monotony of life in a town as small and, one assumes, quiet as Centerville, it might be slightly more amusing. That’s a reading you could impose, but for me it’s not something Jarmusch ever actually indicates. This also makes it difficult to say anything about the performances, because they all occupy this same monotonous space and are so obviously directed that even the film’s best actors come off as stiff.
Beyond this, The Dead Don’t Die is simply poorly crafted. Multiple plotlines and characters go absolutely nowhere and disappear rather than ending. Selena Gomez appear as one of a group driving through Centerville on a road trip. They decide to stay the night, but have precisely no effect on the story and nothing to mark them out as characters. Endings seem to be a major issue for Jarmusch, the way he wraps up Swinton’s story screams desperation, grabbing an idea from thin air whether it makes any sense or not. A group of teens from the juvenile detention centre in town are particularly redundant, they also have nothing to do with the overarching story and the screenplay doesn’t even attempt to pull an idea out of thin air for them, instead they just run off screen, never to be seen again. Another in the grab bag of ideas that go nowhere involves Ronnie’s recurring line “This is going to end badly”, the reveal of how he knows this has some potential, but again, Jarmusch throws the idea out and never does anything with it, except to have one brief exchange in which Murray and Driver wink so hard at the audience that you worry they’ll burst a blood vessel.
Horror cinema is often dismissed by people who don’t see a lot of it. Yes, there are horror movies that just do what they say on the tin, but the genre as a whole is seldom simply about vampires or masked killers, or zombies. Horror is rich in metaphor and commentary, it looks at the world through a skewed lens and uses the terror of the unknown to pass comment on the world. This is another of the many areas in which The Dead Don’t Die is a dismal failure. If Jarmusch has a point to make here it’s one that is painfully out of date. George Romero’s Dawn of the Dead posited that consumerism was turning us into zombies as far back as 1978, all Jarmusch ever does here is reiterate that with slightly updated references, his zombies moaning “WiFi”, “Coffee” or “Fashion”. As dated as his point is, Jarmusch also uses it extremely poorly. I’ve always found the metaphor at the heart of Dawn of the Dead a bit laboured, but at least Romero commits to the idea, Jarmusch’s zombies simply mutter the words he’s given them, they don’t lead to any larger point or clever setup. This same problem persists with how the zombie apocalypse has come about here, there’s a reference to fracking, but again, it doesn’t play in to either the satire (if satire is even being attempted) or the horror, it’s just a buzzword.
The Dead Don’t Die is a graveyard of ideas. Time and again, Jarmusch introduces a character or a notion only to let it sit there and rot. The comatose delivery he’s shackled his cast to kills the comedy deader than the film’s completely uninteresting zombies. Watching this film I simply can’t tell why Jarmusch, or anyone else for that matter, wanted to make it and that doesn’t translate into something I’d recommend you spend any time watching.