The Dead Don’t Die and all the images you see in this review are owned by Focus Features
Directed by Jim Jarmusch
Two things I’m not particularly well versed in are zombie movies and Jim Jarmusch movies; the former because I find many entries in the genre to be tedious and the latter because I haven’t gotten around to them yet. Good thing I get to kill two birds with one stone here as I guess even he couldn’t resist the allure of big box office gold with yet another zombie film! Then again, we’re kind of on the other side of the whole zombie craze, so maybe this is the PERFECT time for his indie sensibilities and surprisingly extensive connections to make the ultimate commentary on the modern interpretation of the genre! Or maybe it’s just a goofy comedy with the dude from Star Wars and Selena Gomez. The point is that you can never pin this guy down to just one thing, so it’s probably both at the same time. The REAL question though is whatever it ends up being, is it any good? Let’s find out!!
Police Chief Robertson (Bill Murray) and Officer Ronnie Peterson (Adam Driver) are living out their lives patrolling the small town of Centerville without much to worry about other than Hermit Bob (Tom Wait’s) possibly stealing chickens and the dead body in their police station that someone from the big city promises to pick up real soon. The town is filled with lots of colorful characters like Farmer Miller (Steve Buscemi) who’s a racist jerk, Hank Thompson (Danny Glover) who’s clearly getting too old for whatever it is that he does, and Bobby Wiggins (Caleb Landry Jones) who runs a really cool gas station filled with old school horror movie merchandise, and all of them certainly have their concerns about reports of the Earth being pushed off its orbit due to arctic fracking, but it’s not something they have much control over so they just keep doing what they’re doing. Sadly for the citizens of Centerville (except for Farmer Miller because screw that guy), the grave environmental catastrophes thousands of miles away seem to be having a global effect and the dead start to rise from their graves. Chief Robertson and Officer Peterson, along with the third and final cop in the town Officer Morrison (Chloë Sevigny) have to figure out the best course of action for dealing with this nonsense and they could use a little help from the new undertaker in town Zelda Winston (Tilda Swinton) who seems to know her way around bladed weapons and might just have a plan for dealing with the undead rising from their graves. Can the cops as well as the rest of the citizens of Centerville survive this literal night of the living dead? What can be done even if they do survive it now that the Earth has changed its orbit and the moon is now glowing for some reason? What even was the last zombie movie I saw? Does Overlord count?
As I said, I’m not a big fan of zombie movies in general which is why it’s somewhat surprising that I ended up liking this quite a bit. It manages to avoid a good chunk of my personal bug bears with the genre to instead to tell a low key and awkward comedy about what ACTUAL people would do when the dead start to rise from the grave and not cartoonish caricatures of the worst of humanity (i.e. EVERY OTHER ZOMBIE MOVIE). The movie doesn’t have much in the way of insight and there isn’t much of a compelling lore to all of it, but it makes up for that with sharp writing, hilarious situations, and a cast of very accomplished actors bringing it all to life! HA! THAT was a zombie joke!
The best part of this movie is definitely Bill Murray and Adam Driver who have a lot of chemistry and great comedic timing. Murray’s matter of fact delivery coupled with Driver’s layered and disturbing performance create a fascinating and often hilarious rapport that carries much of the movie. With those two doing such a good job together, it’s unfortunate that the third cop played by Chloë Sevigny doesn’t have nearly as much to do and her story heads in a rather unsatisfying direction. I get what they’re doing with her character as she seems to be the one person acting as we’d expect someone to in a zombie movie and her reactions DO add something to Adam Driver’s rather disturbingly blasé attitude, but her role ends up falling rather short as head towards the end of the movie. Tilda Swinton at least fares a bit better as she comes off rather weird and almost alien to the small town, but not to an extent that I never believed her as a character and she frankly ended up having more interesting things to do in the story compared to Chloë Sevigny. Maybe that’s kind of the point though and I shouldn’t be so quick to dismiss someone not dealing with the situation well, but it’s hard to argue that Tilda Swinton isn’t given much more entertaining stuff to do in here. That said, I do have a suspicious that someone (it could have been her choice to play it this way but Jarmusch is the only one with a writing credit) is taking the piss out of the whitewashing controversy from Doctor Strange; casting her as a white woman with a strong appreciation of Eastern (specifically Japanese) culture. I’m… not sure how much of that was meant to draw parallels, but it’s still a fun role and even if she is the most absurd character in this town, the movie still keeps things grounded enough that she’s not an outright cartoon or a superhero.
In addition to our main cast, there are a lot of side characters throughout that are fun to watch and are played by very talented actors. It certainly takes its time in the first act to set the stage for all the forthcoming zombie munching action with ominous reports about fracking causing disastrous changes in the Earth’s rotation and getting to know the people who will soon be victims of all that capitalistic greed. In particular, I though Caleb Landry Jones stole the scenes he was in and his eventual team up with Danny Glover’s character makes for some fun moments once the apocalypse hits the fan. Worth noting as well is Tom Waits as a hermit in the woods who seems to be aware of what’s going on long before everyone else in the town is, and he serves a unique role as things begin to unfold. He’s not quite a narrator, but perhaps more of a Greek Chorus played by one dude in that he reacts to everything going on while still feeling somewhat separated from it all; a rather fitting role considering he chose to leave society and fend for himself on the outskirts of it. There are a lot more people and little stories worth talking about here such as the teens in the Kid Jail and Steve Buscemi’s rather meek MAGA chud, but I don’t want to go that much further into it because it’s worth watching it all play out without someone like me trying to evaluate the quality of each interaction. It’s all good stuff worth watching and I’m now interested to see if Jarmusch’s other films are similarly engaging.
However, as much as I enjoy the individual characters and their stories, the big problem with this movie is that the overarching plot is kind of a mess. It’s not that I particularly care about the LORE of this world and why the moon is all glowy now, but within the narrow focus the film is based on (this small town and its residents) there are some glaring holes in the narrative. The cops characters don’t even seem to know what they are doing which is fair enough I guess (would YOU have any idea how to deal with a zombie apocalypse?) but by the end of the movie… well I don’t want to spoil it but even I think I’d find a better way to spend the night in a zombie blighted town. Tilda Swinton’s story at least has a really great ending to it, but everything we saw building up to it doesn’t end up connecting. It’s not that the ending is absurd; it’s that the character didn’t even seem to know that that is where she was heading based on earlier scenes in the movie. The worst victim of this has to be the three teens at the Kid Jail who just drop out of the movie completely with no resolution or closure; something afforded to every other character in the movie (underwhelming or not, their stories DO end) and yet is neglected for these three. I also wasn’t a big fan whenever the movie would get “cute” and start breaking the fourth wall. It’s something that’s hard to pull off in the first place, but here it just feels totally unnecessary. I think the biggest problem is that the movie doesn’t even commit to it as there are only two characters w+ho do it and it’s done quite infrequently. At least with characters like Deadpool there’s the sense that the character is always aware of their role in the movie and the audience’s participation which makes it feel like a natural extension of the film. Here, the few moments that we do break the fourth wall feel like outtakes that Jarmusch accidentally left in and they pulled me out of the movie every single time.
A lot of what I liked about this movie isn’t big or flashy or even particularly poignant, but it still managed to wrap me into these characters lives in the moments before the world starts to crumble around them, and I for one am glad that a character driven zombie film doesn’t immediately go to THE HORRIFYING CRUELTY OF MANKIND as its central (and very tired) conceit. Some of them are good, some of them are bad, but most importantly they feel like people instead of caricatures which is too often the case with films in this genre, and usually not the fun kind that I can enjoy in certain movies. On the very low bar I have set for zombie films, this one easily rises towards the top; at least as far as our modern fascination with them. Is it worth seeing in theaters though? I think I can say it’s worth the asking price, even if things kind of peter out in the end rather than come to a particularly satisfying conclusion. OH well, it’s about the JOURENY and not the destination, right? The rather mundane yet still pretty charming journey!