The Dead Don’t Die (2019)
Director: Jim Jarmusch | Runtime: 1h 44mins | Comedy, Horror
Polar fracking sends the world off it’s axis, and in doing so causes a lot of abnormal things to happen in the small town of Centreville. Their animals disappear, their days become nights and visa-versa – and then the dead begin terrorising the town.
You’ll notice in every film Jarmusch makes that, no matter the film-world he’s exploring, there’s a recurring style throughout each one. That’s the style of the prolific director, being able to staple such a distinct presence on his films despite having the boldness to try new genres. It’s similar to people like Tarantino, Paul Thomas Anderson and even Joon-ho Bong. They take their vision and allow it’s flexibly to course through each one of their films despite the genre guidelines being loud and clear and with Jarmusch’s newest feature, The Dead Don’t Die, he follows a similar mantra. But with a lot to love premise-wise somehow the separation between message, style and genre is sometimes lost within the confines of this horror comedy.
Jarmusch starts his film with delicate world building, using his deadpan characters to bring to life the everyday existence that occurs in such small towns across America. In this strong start we are introduced to Chief Cliff Robertson (Bill Murray) and Ronnie Peterson (Adam Driver), who’s Fargo-esque attitude radiates the same deadpan energy of the films setting, and in the latter part of the film, when the chaos begins, they embody a similar small-town cop attitude of being inexplicably unprepared for such an event. But these aren’t the only characters, in fact we get to see fellow police officer Mindy Morrison (Chloe Sevigny), a very one-dimensional racist donning a ‘Make America White Again’ hat played by Steve Buscemi, and a whole plethora of interesting characters introduced into this wonderfully flawed, and relatable, world Jarmusch has let us be apart of. The problem though, is that all these characters are introduced with a seemingly important role to play that never follows through.
Each character, with the exception of Murray and Driver’s, are left as a hollow promise to the sound of Tom Wait’s grizzly narration. Despite this Jarmusch may have inadvertently found his audience in the cult cinema. While there is no particular sign of a strong following, some of the films content definitely has the wackiness that most quirky cinema goers like to see. For example, Tilda Swinton plays a Scottish funeral home owner wielding a samurai sword (more traditionally than Danai Gurira in The Walking Dead [2010-]), Iggy Pop is a coffee obsessed zombie and Selena Gomez rides around in the famous 1967 Pontiac LeMans – which is seen in Romero’s pioneering zombie flick Night of the Living Dead (1968). These little details and cast choices will always draw people to the off-kilter style of The Dead Don’t Die.
But the bigger picture is not a pretty one for Jarmusch, as his strong message seeps through with ease, it’s his story that suffers heavy damage. While the deadpan characters and world-building are great, there’s a number of additions that the director adds that feel out of place or even arrogant. One particular scene close to the end sees our two police officer heroes surrounded by zombies, with no escape in sight, conversing and bickering. It begins relatively entertaining but slowly morphs into a meta-conversation about the scripts ending, which is far more self-indulgent than the director probably intended. Follow that up with a spaceship appearing, then what you have is a strange mix of throwback zombie horror, B-Movie Sci-Fi and self-indulgent writing.
Through all the bad though Jarmusch does follow up on showing you a wholesome American town in all it’s glory (and flaws). Taking the time to find his characters that, despite lacking pay off, do represent the world they are built into. As for the message, Jarmusch isn’t just taking hits at contemporary America and the environmental status of the world we live in today, but us too. Essentially running on the joke that we as a race are zombies to the things we are drawn too, and the miscellaneous tasks that draught everyday life.
These messages are a brave goal to achieve within the confines of the zombie apocalypse genre, but Jarmusch has enough talent in his locker to embrace the film’s uniqueness and make it work. However, maybe Jarmusch didn’t prepare for the underlying irony of his own words, as Adam Driver’s character repeats the line: “This is definitely gonna end badly.” You can’t help but feel that Ronnie Peterson was right in more ways than one.