Synopsis – The peaceful town of Centerville finds itself battling a zombie horde as the dead start rising from their graves.
My Take – Over the past decade, Zombie films, with the exception of I Am Legend, World War Z and the Resident Evil films, have become a staple for attracting low budget filmmakers, as digital film making has become more accessible resulting in about a dozen releases every month. Sadly, in current state, there is no other horror sub-genre that maintains such a poor ratio of quantity to quality.
However, the involvement of a filmmaker of Jim Jarmusch‘s stature seemed like the boost genre needed. After all he is one of America’s great filmmakers, and has already proven himself a master of idiosyncratic, cracker-dry comedies that play with our love of dead or dying cultural icons, from Elvis to diners to samurai.
Going strong after nearly 40 years with latter day projects like Only Lovers Left Alive and Paterson, watching him take the helm of a zombie film with his trademark sensibilities in the form of his deliberate cool, his casual well-read sophistication, and his abiding compassion for his characters, sounded like a gory delight in the making.
It also explains why the film boasts such a stacked, star-studded cast along with a feeling of director Jarmusch trying to make an event film, as well as a statement on American sociopolitical culture today, on Hollywood today, as well as pay homage to classic zombie films.
But sadly, despite everything the film is not even to close to the fun it promised. With so many characters and so much disconnect between them, as well as so little attention given to the themes, the film ultimately ends up being is a major misfire.
Yes, there are in-jokes and references to other horror films, as though the film were making fun of itself. But in the absence of something substantive at the film’s core, these jokes and references don’t seem like amusing transgressions against the normal rules of storyteller. Rather, they’re like consolation prizes for the film having nothing else to offer. There is also a Meta framing device that doesn’t really work too.
Set in Centerville, a lovingly rendered and fetish vision of small town America, with a 700-strong population big enough for a gas station, a local owned hardware store and a local diner, the story follows police chief Cliff Robertson (Bill Murray) and his deputies Ronnie Peterson (Adam Driver) and Mindy Morrison (Chloë Sevigny), who spend most of their days dealing with eccentrics like a backwoods coot named Hermit Bob (Tom Waits).
However, on this particular day something seems wrong, for starters, it doesn’t get dark anymore until the middle of the night and all the animals are running away. While racist Farmer Frank Miller (Steve Buscemi) blames Hermit for his missing chickens, Cliff and Ronnie aren’t convinced.
Meanwhile, we also follow other host of residents, ranging from hardware store owner Hank Thompson (Danny Glover), the nerd in charge of the town’s gas station Bobby Wiggins (Caleb Landry Jones), three juveniles Stella (Maya Delmont), Olivia (Taliyah Whitaker) and Geronim (Jahi Winston) along with the odd Scottish samurai sword wielding undertaker Zelda (Tilda Swinton) and passerby back packers, Zoe (Selena Gomez), Jack (Austin Butler) and Zach (Luka Sabbat).
They all soon find out that due to the new practice of polar fracking by the energy industry, the Earth has been thrown out of its axis, as a result corpses soon begin crawling out of their graves, spiraling everything out of control.
After a decent setup and the promise of a fantastic cast, director Jim Jarmusch’s film falls flat with the kind of third act wheeze that leaves you thinking the filmmakers just got bored and staggered away from their own film, hereby making it even a tough sell for Jarmusch fans. The film has a nice balance of sharp deadpan humor with a dose of sadness that works for about 30 minutes. Then the film decides to become increasingly self-referential, constantly calling attention to itself as a film.
Early on, during the opening credits of the film, we hear Sturgill Simpson‘s theme song for the film which upon the second time we hear it gets directly pointed out as the theme song for the film. The film is Meta in the worse way.
The film is more like a series of knowing gestures than an attempt to tell a story or make a point. There’s an obvious environmental message here, but one so obvious that it must be tongue-in-cheek. While this may fit into the film’s shallow metaphor, this detail never pays off in any way.
Even the film’s underwritten scenes and tired gags end up stifling most of the chemistry. In an early scene set outside of a diner, Ronnie, Cliff, and Mindy encounter the zombie apocalypse’s first two victims. Cliff enters first, looks right, looks left, and then leaves, remarking on his way out that the crime must have been perpetrated by a wild animal, or several wild animals. Ronnie then does the exact same routine himself, right down to the wild animal hypothesis, as does Mindy.
This uninspired comedy seems too traditional for a film this unabashedly weird, and too sluggishly paced to be effective.
I get it, director Jarmusch doesn’t tend to make films for the masses, so it was a given that this would disappoint the general zombie crowd. There are moments when the film takes its own premise seriously, and in those moments you see a flicker of engaging ideas. Rather than go for big, freaky set-pieces, director Jarmusch instead emphasizes the ways in which every day rhythms are thrown off.
There’s also some fun to be had in the ways the characters aren’t all that different from zombies to begin with, but after spending so much time building them up, he simply doesn’t know what to do with all these characters. They either disappear from the narrative or turn up as shambling zombies with no explanation of how they wound up that way.
Some subplots are established, such as Landry Jones’ shy geek gas attendant attraction for Selena Gomez’s hot-pants clad tourist. Many characters seem to exist purely because director Jarmusch wanted to fit all his buddies into the film. Some of the narrative gaps are lazily filled in by Tom Waits, whose forest dwelling hermit observes the action from afar, doling out exposition and verbally hammer home the themes director Jarmusch is struggling to express.
These characters don’t just act like they know they’re in a film, they act like they know they’re in a film, with Murray even taking a moment to cuss out “Jim.” The most interesting moments arrive much earlier on, when it’s still broad daylight at 10 o’clock at night and the radio stations are insisting everything’s fine. There’s an eerie unease embodying the film’s environmental concerns, and the anxiety speaks eloquently to the fears of our present moment, setting the stage for a film far more thoughtful than the lark we wind up watching.
Though made on a small budget, the film features a stacked ensemble of Jarmusch regulars, some of whose cameos are better than others. Bill Murray and Adam Driver‘s interaction is the best thing in the film. Their deadpan comic styles suit the film’s tone. Chloë Sevigny was reportedly hesitant to even take her role as distressed damsel, yet manages to do fine.
I was also charmed by the banter between Danny Glover and Caleb Landry Jones as shopkeepers who bar themselves in a hardware store, and by Tilda Swinton’s performance as a samurai-sword-toting Scottish mortician.
In smaller roles, Steve Buscemi, Tom Waits, Selena Gomez, Carol Kane, RZA, Iggy Pop, Rosie Perez, Austin Butler, Sara Driver, Luka Sabbat, Maya Delmont, Taliyah Whitaker and Jahi Winston are alright. On the whole, ‘The Dead Don’t Die’ is filmmaker Jim Jarmusch’s least essential film, which despite boasting of an excellent cast, turned out to be a tremendous disappointment owing to its shambling horde of being a cynically produced zom-com.
Directed – Jim Jarmusch
Rated – R
Run Time – 104 minutes