What do you look for in a zombie movie?
Is it sophomoric political satire, a script riddled with silly self-referential jokes? An all-star cast who sleepwalks through the film, most of them in glorified cameos that add up to little more than stunt casting? A story about the zombie apocalypse being caused by global warming that moves at a glacial pace? Then The Dead Don’t Die is the perfect movie for you.
If, however, you like your zombie movies to have guts and gore, memorable kills, tension, thrills, and chills then look somewhere else.
Written and directed by Jim Jarmusch (Only Lovers Left Alive), The Dead Don’t Die tells the story of what happens when the sleepy little town of Centerville, population 700-something, is overrun by hungry hordes of the undead. Ok, overrun is a bit of an exaggeration, since the zombies in the movie pretty much stumble aimlessly around searching for things that used to give them pleasure in life, like playing tennis or drinking chardonnay. And they don’t really act like they are hungry for human flesh; it’s more like they may be a bit peckish. But if a dozen undead swarming a police car can be called a horde, then at least there are hordes in The Dead Don’t Die. Or a horde.
The stumbling undead, however, isn’t the first indicator residents have that something may be wrong in Centerville. The fact that it’s bright and sunny outside even though it’s past 8:30 at night is a clue they sort of notice, as are the TV and radio news broadcasts that keep talking about the pros and cons of polar fracking and whether the ‘strange happenings” around the world may be related. The constant presence of a Sturgill Simpson song called “The Dead Don’t Die” playing in the background, the foreground and over the opening credits is a dead giveaway, too.
Unlike the audience, though, the residents of Centerville have a hard time connecting the dots and so the bumbling continues for a while, giving Jarmusch plenty of time to do…very little. He takes a few swipes at the current political climate, like having the racist redneck farmer (played to perfection by Steve Buscemi) wear a Make America Great Again style hat that says “Make America White Again.” He also lets Tilda Swinton get as weird as she wants while playing the part of a Scottish albino samurai undertaker. Sadly, neither his commentary nor Swinton’s craziness adds up to much by the end.
Eventually, the population of Centerville catches on to what is happening and the few who are left alive band together to try and stop the zombies from taking over. What follows should, according to the generally accepted rules of zombie movies, be a bloodbath, but it’s not. In fact, beyond a few drops splattered here and there as the zombies unconvincingly pretend to eat their victims in a close-up, there is very little blood in The Dead Don’t Die. Instead, we see sand…or some badly added in post-production facsimile of black sand substituting for blood. For horror fans who have waded through the first hour of the movie waiting for the blood to flow, the ‘blood sand’ is the final insult.
Given his resume of bleak, low-fi indie films like Down By Law and Coffee and Cigarettes, it’s easy to try and cut Jarmusch some slack and at least credit him for trying to make something different with The Dead Don’t Die. But this isn’t his first foray into the world of genre films: he made an excellent martial arts action film called Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai in 1999 and the exquisite vampire love story called Only Lovers Left Alive in 2013. The idea of him using those skills to make a zombie movie set the bar pretty high for fans of the director and fans of the genre. Unfortunately, Jarmusch doesn’t pull it off. His attempt to blend political commentary, comedy and horror never quite gels the way he (and the audience) wants it to, and the primary reason is his script. Jarmusch takes the bare bones of a generic zombie apocalypse story and drapes it with a lot of half-baked ideas. Polar fracking is the cause of the dead rising from their graves, we are lead to believe, but the way he delivers the information to us is too fragmented. We see a newscaster (Rosie Perez) present vague allusions to the problem in a local news broadcast and screaming headlines about the end of the world on the front page of a sleazy supermarket tabloid. The idea, it seems, is that one is as true as the other in these days of ‘fake news’ but Jarmusch does little to follow up on it.
The writer/director gets a bit too cute with the self-referential jokes at just the wrong time in the movie, too. When Sheriff Cliff Robertson (Bill Murray) finally gets sick of hearing his deputy, Officer Ronnie Peterson (Adam Driver) say that ‘things are going to end badly’ and demands to know why he keeps saying it, the last thing the audience wants to hear him say is that he “read it in the script.” It may draw a chuckle, but the way Jarmusch keeps harping on it, having Murray act like he’s offended that the director didn’t give him the whole script to read but just his scenes, quickly get annoying, It doesn’t make the script feel clever or edgy or funny. It just makes it feel lazy. (Later in the movie, when Jarmusch finally deals with the idea behind the strange samurai undertaker the writing feels both lazy and stupid.)
As meandering and misguided as The Dead Don’t Die can be, there are moments of absolute delight scattered throughout the film. Seeing an undead Iggy Pop stumble into an all-night diner looking for coffee and something — actually, someone — to eat is almost worth the price of a ticket although the moment may be lost on anyone who doesn’t recognize the godfather of punk under all that graveyard gore slapped on his face. Those who don’t even know who Iggy Pop is can stop reading now and go buy a copy of his Raw Power album.
There is also an awesome appearance by legendary singer Tom Waits as Hermit Bob, the local misfit who has lived in the woods for the past 50 years and is the first to realize and understand that nature is going haywire. Hermit Bob acts as a sort of unofficial narrator of the story, the gravelly voice of reason that nobody on the screen listens to because he’s just some crazy guy who lives off the grid. The audience listens, however, but mainly because it’s Tom Waits speaking and his delivery is just so…Waitsean. And those who don’t understand Waitsean as a concept can stop reading right now and go buy a copy of his Heart Attack & Vine album.
It would be nice to report that the rest of the ensemble cast does as good a job as Waits, but they don’t. Bill Murray is surprisingly flat playing the smalltown sheriff, stumbling through the film with only a little more energy than the undead. Driver isn’t much more enthusiastic playing his sidekick, although his deadpan delivery works a little better because he generally has better lines to say. Chloe Sevigny, Danny Glover, RZA and Caleb Landry Jones make appearances in the movie, too, but none of them make any real impact on your memory once they leave the scenes.
And then there is Selena Gomes, the former Disney princess whose efforts to break out of her prefabricated pop mold have been a mixed bag, memorable in Spring Breakers and forgettable in just about everything else. Her performance in The Dead Don’t Die as a young woman on a road trip with her friends who just happens to have the bad luck to stop in Centerville right when the zombie apocalypse begins isn’t very well developed. It’s more an appearance than performance, to be fair, but you have to give her kudos for the way she lets the director kill off her character. Her final scene really shows she’s ahead of the pack when it comes to young singers making the leap into acting.
- John Black, The Dead Don't Die