The zombie movie is always ripe for reinvention, seeing how easily stale the subgenre gets. Sure, there are recent-ish staples like Zach Snyder’s Dawn of the Dead remake or Danny Boyle’s 28 Days Later (or, on a more underseen note, 2017’s Quebecois entry Les Affamés – seek that one out if you can) that succeeded in breathing new life into the tropes. But even with those, the same basic formula is eventually followed – zombie apocalypse begins, ragtag group of survivors band together and barricade themselves somewhere, survivors gradually get picked off one by one and maybe turned into zombies themselves, and then maybe there’s one or two people left at the end to fight another day.
So who better than Jim Jarmusch to take a shot (a head shot, that is) at trying something different? America’s premium deadpan cool auteur already successfully deconstructed one kind of horror beastie a few years back in Only Lovers Left Alive, using the idea of vampires for a heady treatise on human existence. For The Dead Don’t Die, however, he goes in an entirely different direction, namely by mocking pretty much everything you’ve come to expect when you see a zombie movie.
The Dead Don’t Die is a less a movie than an absurd playground for a whole array of the director’s hip friends to mess around in. The story itself is the most basic sketch of a zombie film narrative that you can imagine, with seemingly as little thought put into the details and mechanics of this world as possible. Taking place in the small, rural town of Centerville (the first clue that this entire endeavour is a tossed off lark), the dead suddenly start rising from their graves, due to some purposefully vague global environmental crisis, and it’s up to local police men Cliff (Bill Murray) and Ronnie (Adam Driver) to protect the citizens from this undead threat. Along the way, many other eccentric townspeople are introduced, mainly so they can get killed off in the third act.
It honestly feels like Jarmusch just made this thing up as he went along, soliciting help from his uber-talented company of actors to come up with funny ideas on the spot. Multiple plotlines are introduced and then all promptly dropped with no resolution, characters appear and then disappear on a whim, and the whole cinematic world continues to get less and less structurally sound as it goes along. If it weren’t for the presence of celebrities and the professional looking production, you might think this was some loony long-lost regional horror production made in the VHS era.
Knowing Jarmusch, this is probably the whole point. He’s clearly going for a meta genre deconstruction kind of thing and there are some great jokes that matter-of-factly highlight the movie’s artificiality. In accordance, the cast enthusiastically goes along with the vibe, including Steve Buscemi as a MAGA (or “MAWA”, as you’ll see) cap-wearing farmer, Rosie Perez as a TV newswoman named Posie Juarez, and Iggy Pop in full-on gut munching mode. By the time Tilda Swinton arrives as a Scottish samurai mortician, slicing and dicing her way through hordes of zombies in slow-mo as she walks down a dark street, you know Jarmusch is just fucking with us.
And while all this craziness is undeniably entertaining for a while, once the third act hits, it becomes increasingly obvious that Jarmusch doesn’t quite know where to go with all of this. As a result, he eventually succumbs to the generic zombie movie formula after all, letting the movie play out just like any other zombie film would (with the exception of a non-sequitur minor plot twist that gives the impression of the director just shrugging his shoulders and saying, “Why not?”).
If you’re a Jarmusch fan, you’ll no doubt still get a kick out of this – his cast is too talented and his style still so refreshingly esoteric. Does The Dead Don’t Die add anything significant to the exhausted zombie canon, though? Not really.
But you know what they say – You can’t teach a dead person new tricks (or something like that).
- Release Date: 6/14/2019