The newest entry into Jim Jarmusch’s filmography is an (un)dead-pan zombie comedy that succeeds on most levels.
Let me preface this review by saying this outright: Consider me a Jim Jarmusch stan.
I’ve seen all of his films and consider him to be one of the best American indie directors of all time–working today or any other day. No one bends a genre to their will quite like Jarmusch. From the fantastic acid western Dead Man (1995) to the Gothic vampire romance Only Lovers Left Alive (2013), or the pseudo samurai/hitman film Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai (1999) and his early no-wave films like Stranger than Paradise and Down By Law. The guy’s a genius auteur.
Jarmusch reunites with a lot of old flames in The Dead Don’t Die like Bill Murray, Tom Waits, Tilda Swinton, and RZA being decade spanning collaborators, and Adam Driver returning from their first collaboration in 2016’s underrated Paterson.
Summarizing the Dead
Due to U.S. polar fracking, the Earth’s axis shifts drastically throwing the planet’s magnetic field far out-of-whack, which causes strange occurrences including no sunlight for 24 hours, watches stop working, and–oh yeah–the dead start rising.
Enter Centreville, Pennsylvania, a rural town with a population of 738 and most of them are a bit eccentric, to say the least. The town has a certain continuous loop about it involving a diner that everyone frequents, a grand total of three police officers, and some casual racism (ahem…Steve Buscemi).
To call Jarmusch a “comedic” director is a misnomer. All of his films definitely have humor in them, but in the end, they couldn’t be labeled as comedies. The Dead Don’t Die would be his first and takes some time to get accustomed to see that script from this man. The first 20 minutes, it seemed poorly paced or awkwardly edited and acted.
Once I got on the same wavelength the film was on, it really was smooth sailing from there. Think of it as Wes Anderson-esque deadpan humor but on crack. The gallows humor works amazingly with this style, especially when contrasted with the gore and with endlessly quotable one liners.
If there was anything that didn’t work humor wise, it would be the meta nature. This film has moments where there’s good meta references and where they go a little too far.
It was more rewarding and funny when they said or did something that made me think “Did they just…” and not when they straight-up start referencing plot points.
Full disclosure: This is a zombie comedy hugely influenced by ’50s and ’60s B-horror films. Jarmusch isn’t out to create a philosophical masterpiece on life and death nor is he trying to reinvent the wheel here. He did this because he wanted to have fun and that’s shown on the screen.
Itemizing the Dead
Here’s a list of zombie movie criteria I developed because I had some time. Let’s see if this movie passes:
- Gore / zombies straight up eating people? Check.
- Political undertones? Yes, but I think the film is so overt to the point where it hurts it in the end. Sure.
- Is it fun? Absolutely.
That’s it. That’s really all you need for a good, solid zombie flick.
The stand-out performances among a stacked cast like this actually wasn’t too hard to figure out. A lot of the actors felt underused and weren’t fleshed out (no pun intended) enough. Nonetheless, Driver, Murray, and Swinton were absolutely delightful to watch.
Speaking of Adam Driver, he doesn’t get too much credit for his comedic prowess that he has displayed on SNL or films like Logan Lucky and his Noah Baumbach movies. He had the audience cracking up in their seats with his superb line delivery and comedic timing. He even upstaged Bill Murray in some parts. Really. I don’t know how he did it. He delivered the bone dry humor with such ease and conviction, it worked perfectly.
Now let’s talk about what didn’t work.
Judging the Dead
Time to put on the negative cap.
The film is uneven and I think that’s probably the biggest flaw. There’s a lot of empty space that could be construed as “slow” but I think that’s part of the humor. What I’m talking about is using menacing and suspenseful music with dark moments right before– and after–hilarious moments. It’s jarring and I feel it has more to do with the editing than anything, which can be fixed quite easily.
It’s a little late for that, but you never know.
There’s a storyline with kids who are in juvie and while I thought the performances were acceptable but amateurish, the story ends up splicing a few moments of “why is this here” or “this is still happening” in the plot line. And that usually ends up going nowhere. It could be removed from the film and nothing would change with the main story.
Jarmusch can tend to sound preachy when it comes to his politics and while I agree 100 percent with his stance on issues like climate change and Trump’s America, it gets to the point where you start thinking: “Yes, yes. The world is going down the toilet and the alt-right aren’t exactly helping matters, but…”
I think the film is just weird and quirky enough where it gets away with the more bat-shit-crazy aspects that wouldn’t work in say, Shaun of the Dead, which is quirky but more realistic and emotive in its own way. The meta humor I mentioned earlier works for this reason. Even when it goes too far, Murray and Driver sell it to make it more amusing than it could’ve been.
In Tom Waits’ ending monologue, he pontificates what seems to be what the zombies in this film represent. Much like Dawn of the Dead, the zombies aptly represents consumerism and willing blindness towards social and political issues in the era of “fake news” and “post truth.” It could explain why the zombies tend to gravitate toward things they enjoyed in life in sort of a blind fervor, something to distract them onward to the harsh reality.
The Dead Don’t Die is the kind of film of which we need more in theaters. A genuinely unique and thought provoking (albeit heavy handed) mid budget genre film. It doesn’t take itself too seriously and gives us unexpected laughs from places we just don’t get any more with modern comedies. It’s far from perfect, but this is a rare treat we don’t get often. It’s a tragedy that this is most likely not going to make a lot of money, and is probably going to end up being a cult classic sometime in the future.
If zombies isn’t your thing, go see it just to see Steve Buscemi wear a hat that correctly translates Trump’s famous slogan: “Make America White Again.”
You can’t make this shit up.