The Dead Don't Die
Updated: Jul 12, 2021
Jim Jarmusch is a fascinating filmmaker. His movies are generally quiet, unhurried and do not follow traditional ideas of plot or story. He usually works in drama or deadpan comedy, but has messed around with genres, such as the western and horror. His first foray into horror was 2013’s Detroit-set Only Lovers Left Alive, about two century’s old vampires contemplating their existence. It was really good and pretty much what you would expect when you mix the offbeat Jarmusch with a genre useful for social commentary. Now comes the quirkier The Dead Don’t Die, his take on the zombie movie, a genre even more useful for social commentary. It is slow-paced, strange and nearly plotless. It is also clever, with tons of in-jokes for film geeks, and funny. It is not straight forward with its jokes; the humor comes from weird angles. A lot of it is inspired by how serious everyone is in the face of terrifying absurdity. It may be different, but it is very much a Jarmusch production.
The Dead Don’t Die (99 minutes without the end credits) takes place in the small town of Centerville, Ohio, where bizarre things are happening. Soon, the dead begin to leave their graves and it is up to Chief Cliff Robertson, Officer Ronnie Peterson and Officer Mindy Morrison to do something before everyone in town gets eaten.
I will start with the cast, which is absolutely tremendous. Billy Murray is the exhausted Chief, baffled by this new predicament. Adam Driver is Ronnie, peculiarly matter of fact when faced with the undead. Chloë Sevigny is the frightened Mindy. Then there is Tilda Swinton as the unusual mortician, Tom Waits as a hermit who lives in the woods, Steve Buscemi as a bigoted farmer and Danny Glover as the kind hardware store owner. That does not even include appearances by Selena Gomez, Caleb Landry Jones, Rosie Perez, Iggy Pop, Carol Kane and RZA. The movie is loaded with eccentric performances. Murray, Driver and Swinton are all very funny. The first two get laughs by playing things ridiculously straight at times. Swinton does it by playing a character so precise in her odd mannerisms that you cannot avoid looking at her whenever she is onscreen. The actors definitely assist with the delicate tone.
This is a horror movie paced like a quiet indy comedy. The zombies exist not necessarily as a literal threat (they are that, too), but as a device to satirize consumer culture and the way previous zombie entries have satirized consumer culture. It is a layered idea that does not always work. The crux of it is the dead gravitate toward things they enjoyed when they were alive, so we see them attempting to play tennis or drink coffee in between flesh eatings. It is funny as a concept, and a few of the visual gags connect.
While its individual parts are amusing (sometimes very much so), it never fully coalesces into an entity independent of its influences. Jarmusch has a good premise, a great cast and some clever dialogue. His presentation is entertainingly droll. I certainly had fun with The Dead Don’t Die, though it left me feeling a tiny bit like Jarmusch was punching below his weight. However, for fans of the director or the actors, or for someone interested in something a little unconventional from the zombie comedy subgenre, it is worth a look.
3½ out of 5
Bill Murray as Cliff Robertson
Adam Driver as Ronnie Peterson
Chloë Sevigny as Mindy Morrison
Tilda Swinton as Zelda Winston
Tom Waits as Hermit Bob
Steve Buscemi as Farmer Miller
Danny Glover as Hank Thompson
Caleb Landry Jones as Bobby Wiggins
Selena Gomez as Zoe
Directed and Written by Jim Jarmusch