Studio: Focus Features
Director: Jim Jarmusch
Writer: Jim Jarmusch
Producer: Joshua Astrachan, Carter Logan
Stars: Bill Murray, Adam Driver, Tilda Swinton, Chloe Sevigny, Steve Buscemi, Danny Glover, Caleb Landry Jones, Selena Gomez, Rosie Perez, Iggy Pop, RZA, Carol Kane, Tom Waits
The quirky residents of a small country town fend off an unexpected outbreak of zombies.
The tagline for “The Dead Don’t Die” reads, “The Greatest Zombie Cast Ever Disassembled.” What that arguable boast omits is the follow-up, “…in One of the Most Unenjoyably Pointless Zombie Movies Ever Made.”
My college years coincided with the 1990s indie cinema surge. It was an exciting time for film fans hungry for fringe features that were finally breaking Big Hollywood’s stranglehold on the market. Sundance had yet to be taken over by studio interests. Mainstream media profiled projects from people like Allison Anders. Robert Rodriguez rewrote what was possible with a four-figure budget. And Quentin Tarantino stormed onto the scene with “Reservoir Dogs,” confirming a new era in provocative filmmaking had definitely dawned.
Like others in their late teens or early twenties at the time, I was at the right maturation point where the weird work of auteurs such as Jim Jarmusch appealed to irreverent ennui as well as a sense of rebelliousness. “Night on Earth” still rippled across the arthouse landscape. “Dead Man” was a cool outsider movie that proved you were hip enough to know where to find cutting-edge content.
Not unexpectedly, those sorts of drivers held less and less sway as I grew older. By the time I slowly slogged through the tedium of “Only Lovers Left Alive” (review here), I regrettably realized Jim Jarmusch was no longer the defiantly attitudinal creator I previously considered him to be.
“Only Lovers Left Alive” was such a dull disappointment that I reoriented expectations around updated personal preferences to steer clear of fresh films from that school of “devil may care” artistry. I broke that directive because “The Dead Don’t Die” seemingly promised a send-up filled with sardonic wit, comedic commentary, and a cast of fan favorites playing quirk to the back row. On paper, how can a snickering smile not form at the prospect of Tilda Swinton playing a Scottish swordswoman secretly from outer space who becomes an undertaker that dresses corpses like drag queens?
I should have heeded the warning Jim Jarmusch announced loud and clear with his previous film. “The Dead Don’t Die” does for zombies what “Only Lovers Left Alive” did for vampires, which is to say it makes them insufferably boring.
“The Dead Don’t Die” saves me the trouble of recapping its story by not having one. The movie, which is billed as a comedy despite containing nothing worth a smile much less a laugh, builds itself from vaguely connected vignettes featuring small town stereotypes portrayed by glum actors desperately in search of direction.
RZA appears for 90 seconds to drop a quick hit of dialogue on Caleb Landry Jones, who doubles as a socially awkward pop culture nerd and gas station attendant. Carol Kane cameos with even less time as the reanimated town drunk. Three teens feature as juvenile detention center detainees watching the apocalypse unfold on television. Three twentysomethings steered by Selena Gomez do the same on a different television.
What do all of these characters have in common? They’re all trapped without purpose in an unfunny film.
90% of “The Dead Don’t Die’s” noodle-armed stabs at humor are based on a name or lame play on words. Repeat the phrase, “get it?” after each piece of evidence that follows.
Rosie Perez plays a newscaster named Posie Juarez. Instead of referring to a signature as a ‘John Hancock,’ RZA’s deliveryman character calls it a ‘Herbie Hancock.’ In case his ‘Make America White Again’ hat doesn’t hit the gag with a hammer, Steve Buscemi’s Republican farmer has a dog named Rumsfeld.
Two featured zombies are obsessed with coffee, because you know, people are slaves to caffeine. Other one-word mantras uttered by the undead include “chardonnay” and “wi-fi,” because you know, people mindlessly indulge in frivolous vices. George A. Romero used the living dead to cleverly comment on consumer culture more creatively 40 years earlier. “The Dead Don’t Die” isn’t just late to the pastiche party. It arrives without a gift, sullenly stands stiff in a corner, and leaves without flushing the toilet.
There’s no real meaning to dissect here, no matter what Tom Waits’ tacked-on narration may fool you into believing. Jarmusch confesses to slacked focus by repeatedly ripping the fourth wall with meta humor obvious enough to qualify as condescending. The most minor offense involves Adam Driver sporting a Star Destroyer keychain given its own close-up. The most egregious infraction has Bill Murray’s cop asking Driver how he knew about the zombie apocalypse. Driver explains that he read the film’s script, causing Murray to bemoan how their director only gave him pages for his specific scenes. The entire exchange is a white flag of surrender signifying Jarmusch saying, “I don’t really know what this is either.”
Watch “The Dead Don’t Die” at 1.5x speed and you’ll still find it moves sluggishly. Ambling zombies routinely exhibit more energy than the sleepwalking humans. If Bill Murray’s disinterest sunk his stone face any lower, his cheeks would drag on the ground. Murray’s centerpiece appearance rings so hollow, you can hear the regret echoing inside him, “I already hit my undead comedy peak with ‘Zombieland,’ what am I doing here?”
In the event any reader is a devout Jim Jarmusch apostle or apologist, and takes umbrage that I dare deface one of indie cinema’s Mount Rushmore idols, save your spittle. Should Jarmusch venture to complete a trifling trifecta with a third horror-humor hybrid lazily lampooning werewolves, mummies, or lagoon creatures, you’ll probably be spared further thoughts. I don’t care who gets cast next time. I can’t imagine I’m enough of a masochist to subject myself to another movie in this vapid vein of miserable meandering.
Review Score: 30