Every month, we at The Spool select a filmmaker to explore in greater depth — their themes, their deeper concerns, how their works chart the history of cinema and the filmmaker’s own biography. For January we’re celebrating the work of godfather of independent film Jim Jarmusch. Read the rest of our coverage here.
Maybe that’s the joke. Jim Jarmusch has spent an entire career perfecting his unhurried style and dry wit. The Dead Don’t Die takes both to extremes. Despite the prospect of corpses coming back to life and roaming the earth, everyone in Jarmusch’s zombie flick takes these events in stride. In fact, they all but sleepwalk through them, seeming to offer only the most desultory reactions and resistance to their revivified friends. The matter-of-fact lethargy of it all aligns with Jarmuch’s trademark idiosyncrasies as a filmmaker, but it could also be a deliberate attempt at feature-length meta-humor.
On the one hand, there’s something inherently funny about a Fargo-esque pack of small town cops responding to the zombie apocalypse as though it were a gaggle of rabbits chewing up the town’s tomato plants. On the other hand, there’s something amusing in tackling a genre that increasingly takes itself deadly seriously and instead playing it like a film about hanging up laundry. And on a third hand (one, presumably, in the jaws of some random ghoul), there’s something conceptually chuckle-worthy about bringing together an incredible cast and choosing to sedate all of them to the point that even the living seem like zombies just going through the motions.
But the results are, well, boring. The laughs are mild. And in the end, it’s tough to distinguish a movie trying to wring humor from a deliberately enervated take on a typically breathless subgenre, from one that’s just dull and ineffective.
The Dead Don’t Die sees police officers Cliff (Bill Murray), Ronnie (Adam Driver), and Mindy (Chloë Sevigny) responding to the mysterious goings-on in Centerville, a rural Pennsylvania town that bills itself as “A Real Nice Place.” Along the way, the films checks in with a host of residents and passers-through as the zombie emerge. Juvenile inmates, local business owners, a trio of “hipsters from Cleveland,” a territorial white supremacist, and even a sword-swinging Scottish undertaker played by Tilda Swinton, all join the fray.
It’s tough to distinguish a movie trying to wring humor from a deliberately enervated take on a typically breathless subgenre, from one that’s just dull and ineffective.
Along the way, the film covers all the usual tropes of zombie movies. A mysterious global event seems to be the cause of all the trouble, with a whiff of commentary about karmic comeuppance for environmental degradation. Locals board up their doors and succumb to the horde anyway via forgotten back entrances. The undead instinctively return to the interests, activities, and utterance they once knew in life. It’s hard to tell whether Jarmusch is paying homage to these shopworn bits, low-key spoofing them, or just playing them straight for lack of anything better to do.
Along the way, Murray and Driver deadpan their way through nearly every bit of the material. Make no mistake, the humor here is dryer than burnt toast in the Atacama Desert. The Dead Don’t Die includes gags about repeated spins of a conspicuously topical Sturgill Simpson song (replete with an amusing, equally on-point cameo from the singer). It wrings a few chuckles from recurring lines about a zombie attack looking like the handiwork of “a wild animal…or several wild animals.” And yet, for the most part, the movie makes its comedic bones (or severed limbs) by relying on its characters’ odd, almost detached reactions to these larger-than-life events.
That creates a knowing, fingers-crossed atmosphere for the proceedings. Most of the film’s major figures seem to know they’re in a zombie movie, or at least accept it without any real concern or questioning. Bits of meta-humor peek through, with certain locals seeming to understand their fates and roles in the story, and others resorting to extratextual means to cope with this invasion of decaying fiends. Sometimes that approach is funny. Sometimes it’s cheap. Mainly, it just saps the film of any real life or energy.
The same goes for The Dead Don’t Die’s meager attempts at action. Few filmgoers come to Jarmusch films for high-powered horror thrills, but even by the standards of those diminished expectations, the zombie fisticuffs in the film are roundly unavailing. The occasional showy bit of slow-motion hack-and-slash is fine. Still, on the whole, the effects are unconvincing, with puffs of black dust in lieu of blood and awkward collapses that lend to the film’s subdued, playacting vibe.
Even on that account, it’s unclear if the movie’s chintzy horror-bound fireworks or cheesy camera tricks are deliberate camp or unwitting kitsch. At times, the film seems to devolve into bouts of “weird for the sake of weird.” And certain stylized moments suggest a subtle winking quality to the entire endeavor, one that hinders, rather than helps, the film thread the needle between horror and comedy.
At best, Jarmusch may be trying to take the stuffing out of a subgenre that has, of late, sought to elevate itself above its B-movie roots and posture for that elusive “high art” status. He achieves this by treating the standard zombie movie beats as though they’re utterly mundane. He contrasts the poetic accounts of these battles delivered in grave, wistful tones with the prosaic reality of a couple of schmucks scuffling with some shambling corpses. If you squint, The Dead Don’t Die almost works as a satire, reducing the most outsized elements zombie flicks to their flattest, most postmodern ends.
Or maybe it’s just an unengaging film that stretches a decent ten minute gag, about a flat affect zombie kill-fest, into an overextended 103 minutes of tiresome shtick. Mixing Jarmusch’s slice-of-life bonafides with the outsized tones of an undead invasion seems like a recipe for enjoyment. But the end product — while theoretically interesting as a high concept experiment — is no more lively or engrossing than the doddering cadavers the film keeps digging up.