If Mel Brooks had ever gotten it in his head to make a movie with George A. Romero, that movie would’ve looked an awful lot like The Dead Don’t Die, an absurdist, fourth-wall-breaking zombie romp, packed to the gunwales with movie stars who reach under their seats or into their trousers for copies of the screenplay, calling bullshit on whatever injustices transpire on screen from moment to moment. It would be gory. It would be political. It would make even hardened comedy aficionados snap ribs from laughing too hard. At the very least, it’d bear repeat viewing.
Brooks and Romero didn’t make The Dead Don’t Die. Jim Jarmusch did. Jarmusch’s name is reason for hype, too: He’s one of America’s great filmmakers, going strong after nearly 40 years with latter day projects like Only Lovers Left Alive, Paterson and The Limits of Control. Watching him take the helm of a zombie movie with his trademark sensibilities—his deliberate cool, his casual well-read sophistication, his abiding compassion for his characters—sounds like ghoulish delight done in laconic beatnik style. Technically speaking, that’s The Dead Don’t Die’s sweet spot. It is, in every way, a zombie film only Jarmusch would make. But defying its own hype, that’s a bug instead of a feature.
The sun won’t set over Centerville, and the radio’s stubbornly playing the same Sturgill Simpson song (named after the movie) ad nauseam. Something’s up. Police chief Cliff Robertson (Bill Murray) knows it. His two officers, Ronnie Peterson (Adam Driver) and Mindy Morrison (Chloë Sevigny), know it, though Ronnie has a calm head and Mindy’s role in their trio is to shoulder responsibility for hand-wringing hysterics, like Atlas carrying the heavens on his back. Thirty minutes in, their collective superstitious anxiety is rewarded by the reanimation of two shambling cadavers (played by Sara Driver and Iggy Pop), who do as shambling corpses do and feast on the living. Things spiral out of hand from there. Slowly.
Very slowly. It’s a Jarmusch film. Frankly, The Dead Don’t Die’s moseying pace is one of its better merits, a way for Jarmusch to shade in his assembly of actors and give them enough character that their personalities can handle the remaining legwork—though there isn’t much “there” there for any of them. Cliff is an over-the-hill lawman keeping the peace in the smallest of American small towns; Ronnie is the sole candidate for replacing him down the line. Murray and Driver fill the margins with toned-down versions of Murray and Driver performances, Murray all hangdog wariness and Driver constitutionally unserious while somehow determinedly playing it straight. So it goes for the rest of the ensemble: Given outlines to work with, they’re free to banter and breathe life into their parts as they see fit while ambling through Jarmusch’s easygoing sense of direction.
The more The Dead Don’t Die leans into cheeky self-awareness, the more the cast and narrative are constrained. Jarmusch doesn’t withhold his references. The film screams “Romero” even before the first Night of the Living Dead poster sighting or the first mention of the pioneering genre legend’s name. Sprinkling in nods and nudges undermines the benefits of the exercise. It’s 2019. We know who Romero is. Sure, The Walking Dead’s ratings have plummeted over time, and sure, zombie movies have grown scarcer as pop culture has increasingly grown to favor stuffy “not a horror movie, but a drama” wank fests, but Jarmusch ought to know well enough that spelling out a punchline is a party foul, right up there with weaving self-satisfied social commentary about contemporary hot potatoes (climate change) into battles for survival against relentless zombie hordes.
Guess what? He does that too. The world’s off its axis because of polar fracking. Zombie cinema has drummed up all kinds of hokey explanations for undead pandemics, from viral plagues to radiation to comets. Fracking works fine. It’s Jarmusch’s smug insistent emphasis on The Dead Don’t Die’s reasons that grows tiresome fast, overtaking the film’s otherwise leisurely gait. A film in which Tilda Swinton plays a katana-swinging mortician (who may or may not actually be a mortician) shouldn’t wrap itself up in discourse this thuddingly sober. Of course climate change is a problem. A zombie movie can say so without saying so two, three, all the way up to what feels like a hundred times. Audiences aren’t buying tickets to watch an “everything including the blood-stained kitchen sink” zombie comedy for a lecture on the evils of plundering the Earth’s natural resources. The movie doesn’t drag, but it’s a major drag all the same.
There’s an admitted pleasure to watching Jarmusch work even at his worst, and in fairness, The Dead Don’t Die’s excesses don’t stop it from being funny. Still, it’s a shock to find that Jarmusch’s worst is this bad. As the movie ends, the camera settles on Hermit Bob (Tom Waits), the grizzled woodsman who has wisely observed events from his domain’s safety before delivering a final monologue chastising consumer culture and again making the implicit explicit. Zombies wander about Centerville rasping demands for the objects, services and tchotchkes they clung to in life: candy, WiFi, free cable, tools, coffee, chardonnay. The metaphor is just as decayed as the flesh-eating corpses wreaking havoc over town. Ten years ago, the obviousness might have landed. Today, it’s too much for its own good.
Director: Jim Jarmusch
Writer: Jim Jarmusch
Starring: Adam Driver, Bill Murray, Chloë Sevigny, Tom Waits, Tilda Swinton, Caleb Landry Jones, Selena Gomez, Larry Fessenden, RZA, Sara Driver, Iggy Pop, Carol Kane
Release Date: June 14, 2019
Boston-based culture writer Andy Crump has been writing about film and television online since 2009 (and music since 2018). You can follow him on Twitter and find his collected writing at his personal blog. He is composed of roughly 65% craft beer.