Movie Review: The Dead Don’t Die.
In Jim Jarmusch’s latest film, the dead don’t die. Unfortunately they also don’t entertain or say anything interesting.
I left the theater after viewing The Dead Don’t Die with an oppressive sense of weariness. Jim Jarmusch’s latest film plods along for most of its run time like its undead subjects. A cast featuring an embarrassment of riches in terms of talent morosely pick through their forgettable dialogue. The ideas on offer consist entirely of reheated and stale cultural musings. The film is so unrelentingly tedious that it feels that Jarmusch is actively contemptuous of the genre, or at least of the audience that habitually consumes it.
The Dead Don’t Die (2019).
The citizens of the small town of Centerville begin to notice that their world is not quite right. The sun is high in the sky late into the evening, and night comes randomly. A glowing purple moon hangs eerily over the land. Animals begin fleeing into the woods, and the woods themselves are filled with weird new plants. The weirdness culminates in the dead rising from their graves to attack the living – and get a cup of coffee.
The Daily Grind.
The pacing of the film is glacially slow. Dialogue mainly consists of a few deadpan lines, often repeated several times, that are left to hang in the air till they land with a thud. It feels like an hour of the run-time is just Sheriff Cliff (Bill Murray) and Officer Ronnie (Adam Driver) slowly driving around town past the same two or three landmarks. A generic but fairly effective horror soundtrack is punctuated, repeatedly, by a country ballad so often that even the characters remark on it. The recycled song, repeated dialogue and lack of scenic diversity leads to a feeling of looped time. Nothing seems to progress.
Numerous subplots are brought forth, only to meander and then disappear. Everyone delivers their lines in such lifeless manner that there’s nothing charming to them. You wind up knowing and caring about these characters exactly as much by the end of the film as you did at the beginning. Less, actually, because by then you’re pretty sure you just wasted two hours of your life watching a supremely talented cast waste several months of theirs.
The cultural commentary inelegantly stuffed into the film feel as stale as the pace. The zombie disaster is caused by polar fracking, an obvious poke at our energy policies causing real world disasters. Steve Buscemi wears a big red MAGA hat that says “Make America White Again,” because, you know, Trumpers are racist. The dead come back to life endlessly repeating one word, which happens to be whichever commercial product they consumed the most in life. The film caps it all off with Tom Waits delivering a flaccid diatribe about how consumerist society has made us the real zombies, and the dead coming back to life is just the logical end-point.
Most of these ideas have informed the zombie genre since its inception. The earliest voodoo zombies were obviously the black “other” menacing the “orderly” white society. It’s not an accident that George Romero set Dawn of the Dead in a shopping mall. Ecological disaster and degradation have been the subtext of the genre for decades. There’s nothing new on offer here, and making the subtext explicit comes off as trite.
The side characters are all explicit horror tropes, presented baldly as just that. Selena Gomez appears as a generic nod to the road tripping teens who stumble upon horror, but her plot line goes nowhere and she dies off screen. The geeky movie buff who is a self styled expert on zombies dies because he forgot to bolt the back door, in another nod to dumb horror tropes. Steve Buscemi’s whole gag is “white guy who is racist” and that’s it. Tilda Swinton is a weird samurai woman, cause you can’t have a modern zombie flick without a katana in it. It would be fodder for parody…if this film had anything novel to say about the genre.
Meta World Peace.
On the surface, The Dead Don’t Die is a bad film that artlessly fumbles the conventions of the zombie genre. Jim Jarmusch is a smart guy, who generally makes smart films, so you know something is up. The film itself is meta-aware of itself, with characters commenting on the theme music, their relationship to the director, and the script itself. The problem with this authorial wink and nod is that meta-commentary only works if it says something smart about what it’s commenting on.
I can’t think of an interpretation of this film that’s fresh or clever. If he’s satirizing zombie flicks as stale and formulaic, that’s not new. That take is a decade old and has been handled deftly by numerous films. It also ignores tons of smart films in the genre that have come out in the last twenty years. If he’s saying that the metaphorical use of zombies is unsubtle, then make a subtle version instead of this clunker. He did wonders by re-imagining the chambara samurai film as an urban drama in Ghost Dog, so he knows how to re-purpose a genre.
If he’s jabbing the audience that scarfs up zombie movies of questionable quality just because they’re zombie movies, he’s being a troll to both that audience and the audience who comes for his films. If he’s jabbing Americans in general, then he’s grousing to the choir. I don’t think a ton of MAGA dopes or climate change deniers are flocking to niche Jim Jarmusch films. If he’s punching at Hollywood for making dumb zombie movies instead of more cerebral indie stuff, well…this dumb zombie movie made more in its first week than most of his movies make for their whole run. There’s also plenty of niche indie stuff that does as well or better than horror films. And some horror is itself niche and indie. Maybe it’s you, Jim?