The late George A. Romero always claimed that critics would bash his movies, but whenever they visited his sets they always wanted to play zombies. A zombie movie seems like something that would be a lot of fun to take part in, which may explain why Jim Jarmusch’s The Dead Don’t Die boasts such a stacked, star-studded cast, like a ‘70s disaster movie but for hipster thespians. I hope everyone had fun making The Dead Don’t Die, because I sure did not have fun watching it.
The Dead Don’t Die isn’t a remake of the 1975 Curtis Harrington directed zombie movie from which it borrows its title. I doubt Jarmusch has ever seen Harrington’s movie, as on the evidence of The Dead Don’t Die he seems to believe he’s the first filmmaker to ever make a zombie movie. Zombies have always attracted low budget filmmakers, and because digital filmmaking is more accessible than ever, generic zombie comedies hit VOD at a rate of about a half dozen every week. No other horror sub-genre has such a poor ratio of quantity to quality. You could count the number of worthwhile zombie movies on your fingers, and Romero directed films would take up quite a few fingers.
Ah, but Jarmusch has made a zombie comedy that satirizes the genre while using its tropes to point how we’re all just zombies, thanks to capitalism. Yeah, the same thing Romero did four decades ago with Dawn of the Dead. What Romero did with that keystone of the genre was to use his filmmaking skills to make a point about materialism. What Jarmusch does here is to simply have his characters tell us everything that Romero already showed us in his films. Over and over again, we hear how you have to “kill the head” to take out a zombie, how the undead are attracted to the places and activities they enjoyed while alive, and how, at the end of the day, aren’t we the real zombies maaannnn???
The setup may be as played out as any in horror cinema, but initially at least it seems like Jarmusch’s redundant satire might play out in fun surroundings. His zombie apocalypse comes to Centerville, a lovingly rendered and fetishised vision of smalltown America, with a ‘50s style diner, a local owned hardware store and a gas station that doubles as a hub of horror geek merchandise that would make the estate of Forrest J. Ackerman envious.
In charge of keeping the peace is police chief Cliff Robertson (Bill Murray) and his deputies Ronnie Peterson (Adam Driver) and Mindy Morrison (Chloë Sevigny). The film also introduces us to a host of residents, including hardware store owner Hank Thompson (Danny Glover), racist farmer Miller (Steve Buscemi), Caleb Landry Jones as the nerd in charge of the town’s gas station and Tilda Swinton as Zelda, the odd, Scottish samurai sword wielding undertaker.
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A shift in the earth’s axis brought about by ‘polar fracking’ causes the dead to arise from their graves. After spending so much time building them up, Jarmusch 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 falling for Selena Gomez’s hot-pants clad tourist. Many characters seem to exist purely because Jarmusch wanted to fit all his buddies into the movie. Some of the narrative gaps are lazily filled in by Tom Waits, whose forest dwelling hermit observes the action from afar, acting as a one-man Greek chorus to dole out exposition and verbally hammer home the themes Jarmusch is struggling to express.
The zombie comedy has run itself into the ground in the decade and a half since Edgar Wright’s Shaun of the Dead, but even if The Dead Don’t Die came out 30 years ago it would still come off as derivative and pointless, as in 1985 Dan O’Bannon pulled this off to perfection with Return of the Living Dead, a movie whose deadpan humor Jarmusch seems to be attempting to replicate here with little success.
The only unique features are its all-star cast and some insufferably smug meta commentary that comes off as fan service for Jarmusch buffs (not to mention how Swinton’s character plays up the actress’s online memeification), The Dead Don’t Die plods anonymously among the shambling horde of cynically produced zom-coms, which at this point stink from rot. Dawn of the Dead? More like Yawn of the Dead.
The Dead Don’t Die - 1 ½ stars out of 5
Directed by:Jim Jarmusch; Starring:Bill Murray, Tilda Swinton, Adam Driver, Chloe Sevigny, Steve Buscemi, Danny Glover, Caleb Landry Jones, Selena Gomez