Starring: Bill Murray, Adam Driver, Tilda Swinton, Chloe Sevigny & Danny Glover
Directed by: Jim Jarmusch
Distributed by: Universal Pictures
Release Date: June 2019
Running Time: 103 mins
Synopsis: In the sleepy small town of Centerville, something is not quite right. The moon hangs large and low in the sky, the hours of daylight are becoming unpredictable, and animals are beginning to exhibit unusual behaviours. News reports are scary, and scientists are concerned, but no one foresees the strangest and most dangerous repercussion that will soon start plaguing Centerville: the dead rise from their graves and feast on the living, and the citizens must battle to survive.
As a writer-director of his movies, Jim Jarmusch is an auteur with a distinctive film-making style that reoccurs in his works, despite the diverse subject matter of those films. He often eschews traditional plot progression in favour of mood and character development, adopting an unhurried approach to scenes that are laden with deadpan comedic dialogue. The Dead Don’t Die is Jarmusch’s take on the zombie genre, located in rural America and with an extremely dry and sardonic tone. So laidback that it’s practically horizontal, the story involves two police officers (Adam Driver and Bill Murray) attempting to keep order as the dead rise from the grave. The resulting clash of genre and style produces a film that feels tonally like Fargo during a zombie apocalypse, or a zombie version of Mars Attacks with its parody tone and ensemble cast.
The initial trailers showcased Jarmusch’s deadpan script, brought to life brilliantly by Driver and Murray, but it failed to communicate the slow pace of the film. Scenes run longer than expected and awkward silences punctuate the air after each reactionless piece of dialogue is uttered. What is amusing in small doses in the trailer form feels extremely tedious in a feature-length production and I found myself willing the story to pick up. The initial hour sets the scene of the mundane lives of Driver and Murray’s rural cops, and their nonplussed reaction to the initial clues of a zombie apocalypse. Once the zombie attack begins in earnest, things become slightly more interesting but I found it difficult to care about any of the characters’ fates when it seemed that none of them were that bothered about it themselves.
The Dead Don’t Die has a numerous self-indulgent moments from the director, such as the decision to have the characters break the fourth wall to reference the script and theme song. It was never really given an explanation aside from adding to the “kookiness” of the film. Similarly, Tilda Swinton’s character was given a random UFO escape ending (yes, you read that right) just because Jarmusch wanted to be subvert expectations. While I understand the film had some surrealist qualities, it felt like Jarmusch was trying too hard to be weird. Similarly, the ensemble cast seemed to be made up of numerous actors who’d appeared in previous Jim Jarmusch movies, giving a nod and a wink to audiences with cameo appearances from Steve Buscemi, Iggy Pop and Rosie Perez. As a result some of the characters felt extremely disposable and incidental to the plot.
Much longer than it needed to be and without a decent punchline to the joke, The Dead Don’t Die is a zombie movie with all the excitement sucked out of it. It’s ridiculously slow pace doesn’t help endear the characters to the audience, in fact, it frustrated the hell out of me and while the deadpan reaction to the zombie outbreak is amusing, it doesn’t really go anywhere after the fact. Driver and Murray do their best at holding a straight face throughout, but the deadpan tone drains the film of its energy. If the film has a message, it never really makes it clear as to what the director wants to say. There’s some garbled reference to materialism, with many of the zombies showing a desire for consumerism in the afterlife, but that was done far more effectively by George A. Romero in Dawn of the Dead.
As a comedy, The Dead Don’t Die chases after everyday realism through its conversational dialogue and over-extended scene lengths, but it never actually does anything funny with the genre. In contrast, Shaun of the Dead was a master class in parodying the zombie genre, it not only showed a genuine love and respect for the subject matter, but it also poked fun at the familiar tropes too. Despite my distaste for the script and plot, one area where The Dead Don’t Die did impress me was the way it captured the essence of the original 1968 Night of the Living Dead in terms of its visuals and its low-budget awkwardness. I couldn’t help but wonder how much more entertaining the film could have been had Jarmusch avoided using dry comedy and played things straight instead.
Clearly, I wasn’t that impressed with The Dead Don’t Die. The initial concept seemed to work on paper; a deadpan take on the zombie genre, but it never quite came together on-screen. I can’t fault Driver or Murray’s performances as they did a tremendous job as the two leads but were let down by odd choices in the script. As an ensemble film, there were plenty of plot threads for the film to follow but some of them had rather unfulfilling endings, such as the appearance of Selena Gomez’s trio of hipsters who end up dying off-screen and being the butt of a long-winded beheading scene. The film managed to feel both bloated and empty at the same time with a lot of characters and very little plot for them to take part in.
Aimed more at fans of Jarmusch’s previous work and his laissez-faire directorial style, “The Dead Don’t Die” squanders its potential to entertain a mainstream audience through its ridiculously slow pace and lack of reward. Perhaps better suited to a short film than a feature-length movie, this is one zombie film that needs to be dismembered.