The Dead Don’t Die
For the majority of The Dead Don’t Die, you’re not only nursing the feeling that Jim Jarmusch has no interest in making a conventional horror movie, or even a conventional zomcom – it would have been a surprise if he did – but also that he had no interest in making any kind of horror movie, so disengaged is he with such elements as pace, threat, momentum or escalation. As such, when he detonates the proceedings with a megaton meta device, it isn’t so much a smart and witty move as a simple relief, confirmation that, if it felt like he couldn’t be bothered, it’s because he really couldn’t.
Chief Robertson: You’re trying to tell me… You’re thinking zombies did this?
Where that actually leaves the picture is questionable. It’s often funny, but mildly so. Its horror tropes are both likeably reflexive – Driver’s Officer Peterson very quickly decides what’s going on is zombies, bucking the trend for such movies; the head shot is entirely de rigueur – and quite tiresome in foregrounding the fakery (the CGI blood and decapitations are surely too poor to be other than intentional, as is the decision to go for authentic 1970s day-for-night filming).
In its initial stages, I thought The Dead Don’t Die might be satirising zombie movies’ aspirations to being upheld as relevant satires, with the big announcement that it’s polar fracking that has done for us all. But by the time Peterson announces he knows this doesn’t end well because he’s read the whole screenplay, it’s suggestive that Jarmusch himself has a more despairing, nihilistic funk going on, one he can’t even face disguising as fiction. So his characters go through the motions because that’s what they do, until they meet their inevitable demise, just as we will with our planet.
Chief Robertson: Was that in the script?
Officer Peterson: No, Not the one I read.
So the movie isn’t very deep, really, and it’s delivered in a manner that has clearly turned off more viewers – those thinking they might get a proper zombie movie, or even a Shaun of the Dead or Zombieland one – than it has attracted. And yet, it might be considered, in its own way, to be as accurate a reflection of the wildly varying quality of the genre as Jarmusch’s rich, rewarding Only Lovers Left Alive shows off the degree of variety the vampire flick can yield.
Jarmusch’s zombies, consumerist drones in life, follow suit in death; one of the first we see is Iggy Pop, not looking very different to be fair, demanding coffee. Carol Kane, newly transformed, intones “Chardonnay”. Others request free cable, popsicles, toys, skittles, Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, Xanax, Oxy, and Tools. You get the idea. There’s no hope for anyone, except Tilda Swinton’s mortician, her swordplay lethal and her mind beyond such mundanities. So she’s taken up into the mothership. If you were in any doubt as to the sermon, don’t worry, as Tom Waits’ Hermit Bob delivers a final speech informing us how they’re (we’re) “just hungry for more stuff” and “What a fucked-up world” it is.
Chief Robertson: A wild animal?
Officer Peterson: Several wild animals?
Jarmusch’s oeuvre is characterised by a laidback approach, but he’s never been limited by it, so while I suspect the shambolic cheapness of this flick is itself a homage to early Romeros, I don’t think that necessarily helps its cause. It isn’t sharp or distinct enough to sustain itself, relying on a starry cast and its “message” as sufficient fuel (while some of the kids become zombie fodder – the infernal hipsters – others are allowed to escape, to an unknown end bestowed upon them by an ignorant older generation). It’s unclear what Dean’s (RZA) cryptic “The world is perfect. Appreciate the details” is supposed to imbue, except perhaps that his wisdom is wrong, or possibly that the planet will abide regardless of human extinction.
Bobby: I’ve seen almost every zombie film ever made.
The main takeaway, however, is that this is an inessential existential goof off and doodle on its writer-director’s part. Of the performances, only Driver’s Star Wars-referencing role has much impact, as he responds with matter-of-fact adroitness to events (because he has read the script). Caleb Landry Jones is good as a horror geek. Swinton’s been funnier in such idiosyncratic roles elsewhere (I know she’s had many of the raves for this, but she’s on quirky autopilot by her standards).
Murray puts a bit more emotion into it than usual when faced with the end, and Jarmusch being a dick. Buscemi is wasted as a racist farmer. Danny Glover is likeable but also but given a thankless part. Chloë Sevigny gives a more authentic performance than the material deserves. Waits is Tom Waits, but with a bath or two less than usual.
There’s no commentary on actors carrying on like sheep until the crack of doom, responding in exactly the same mechanical way to any good cause. Or directors either, for that matter. One half-feels Jarmusch should have really gone for it, as he’s been only half hearted about everything here. And if it’s a lost cause anyway, and there’s no point, is there any point even watching his movie? So it’s all just “okay”. Moderately diverting, but it’s difficult to get more engaged in response to The Dead Don’t Die than Jim was when making it.