The Film

I am a longtime fan of Jim Jarmusch, but for reasons that confound me to this day, I’ve yet to see his first two works, Permanent Vacation (1980) and Stranger Than Paradise (1984). His third film, Down by Law (1986), though, was a revelation. This was followed by two extremely idiosyncratic anthologies, Mystery Train (1989) and Night on Earth (1991), which cemented Jarmusch’s distinctive narrative style, emphasizing casual oddness, chance encounters, subtly weird mystical leanings, and a dry, all-encompassing ironic distance.

Over the following decades, he experimented with pseudo-traditional storytelling in classics like Dead Man (1995) and Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai (1999), returned to his loose anthology-style with the long-gestating Coffee and Cigarettes (2003), and then slipped off my radar for a bit with Broken Flowers (2005) and The Limits of Control (2009). Through all these years, he was also directing videos for The Talking Heads, Big Audio Dynamite, Tom Waits, Neil Young, and most recently The Raconteurs – all artists with distinctive styles and personas that align nicely with Jarmusch’s aesthetic.

His latest three films (before The Dead Don’t Die), are some of my favorite independent films of the last decade:  The vampire drama, Only Lovers Left Alive (2013), the meditative visual poem, Paterson (2016), and the Stooges documentary, Gimme Danger (2016). Each film stretched and teased what it meant to have Jim Jarmusch behind the lens.

And while that lens is iconic, it’s not to everyone’s tastes.

The Dead Don’t Die is a film that tries to slip itself into the Jarmusch oeuvre but from the very conception was going to have a hard row to hoe. While there are almost always strange elements to Jarmusch’s films, Only Lovers Left Alive is the only prior film to embrace a supernatural/horror genre. Disaffected vampire musician/artists, however, are a perfect subject matter for his narrative approach. Zombies were always going to require a bit more work.

And therein lies the problem with The Dead Don’t Die.

Jarmusch rarely tells stories that rely on plot. Those that do, usually only stick to the bare minimums necessary to provide a structure upon which to hang his storytelling oddities. And the first half of this film does just that. It meanders around, allowing the actors to inhabit their characters and delightfully interact with each other in ways both realistic and incredibly stylized. It’s clearly a Jarmusch film and is a treat, despite an off-putting flirtation with meta-commentary.

It really does have, as the promotional material suggests, “the greatest zombie cast ever disassembled,” featuring Bill Murray, Adam Driver, Chloe Sevigny, Tilda Swinton, Steve Buscemi, Danny Glover, Rosie Perez, Sara Driver, Iggy Pop, RZA, Tom Waits, and a handful of younger actors who are making their mark, including Selena Gomez, Austin Butler, and Caleb Landry Jones. Hell, Larry Fessenden is even in there.

But then we have to actually deal with having zombies staggering around eating people. The reasoning behind the outbreak is sound enough for the genre, some sort of eco-apocalypse triggered by polar fracking. Nature is out of whack. Classic and timely all the same. Romero-esque social commentary is lightly sprinkled in, as the undead find themselves drawn to the same empty habits that preoccupied them in life – with the traditional hunger for flesh added in.

This is where Jarmusch stumbles into the same trap that captures so many low-budget filmmakers who wade into the zombie river: what to do about the monsters?

The most common answers are kill them with cartoonishly excessive gore (see: Wyrmwood: Road of the Dead), or really lean into the character interactions in the face of impending doom (see: The Battery). We do get a couple of nicely gory scenes, and they immediately cause a rupture in the storytelling. One simply can’t remain aloof and wry about the cannibalized corpses of people one knows. One simply can’t remain aloof and wry about blowing bodies apart with shotguns and machete beheadings, even if the blood and viscera have been replaced with digital black dust (an odd visual choice, for sure). This tonal fracture forces the narrative to acknowledge the unreality by fully engaging with the meta-quality as Murray and Driver discuss the soundtrack and having read portions of the script. Instead of providing relief for the cognitive dissonance, this enhances it, undermining the humorous first half and turning the conclusion of the film into a hodge-podge of by-the-numbers clichés.

Even worse, it’s boring.

On paper, I’m sure that the idea of Bill Murray blowing away zombies with a shotgun sounded like comedy gold, but it just doesn’t work when its bloodless and ultimately pointless. Zombie Iggy Pop groaning about coffee should be money, but it just falls flat after watching him tear chunks out of an innocent person with his teeth. It’s all just too self-aware to really lean into the absurdity of the situations.

The only real standouts, once the zombies have risen, are Chloe Sevigny, Tilda Swinton, and Tom Waits. Sevigny seems to be in an entirely different movie, having viscerally realistic reactions to the horror until her mind just shatters. Tom Waits serves as a sort of Greek Chorus, observing and commenting from the distance as Hermit Bob. Swinton has the most fun with her character and gets what might be the only real surprise moment in the climax of the film – which unfortunately amounts to nothing more than a simple gag but had the potential to be so much more.

The Extras

I’m hesitant to even mention these as all combined, they only run for a slight 9ish minutes, but here you go.

Bill Murray: Zombie Hunting Action Star (1:21) – Somewhat amusing brief bit of Murray mugging and pretending to be an action hero. It’s cute.

Stick Together (2:47) – I watched this not quite a full day ago and have no memory of it whatsoever. Apparently, it features the cast and crew discussing Jim Jarmusch’s work, but nothing that was said stands out.

Behind the Scenes of The Dead Don’t Die:

  • Zombie Tai Chi (0:55) – zombies doing tai chi for 55 seconds.
  • Growl Practice (0:18) – zombies growling for 18 seconds.
  • A Spin Around the Set (0:32) – a literal 360-degree cell phone shot of one of the sets, starting and ending on a somewhat amused Jarmusch.
  • Craft Services (1:00) – zombies lumbering forward and then pretending to eat someone on the ground.
  • Undead Symphony (2:16) – zombie children being coached to growl in a vaguely musical way.
  • Finger Food (0:22) – a zombie chews on a prop hand, tearing off rubber flesh and spitting it out.

The Conclusion

Ultimately, your mileage is going to vary depending on how much of a connection you have to Jim Jarmusch’s catalog. It’s probably the weakest film of his career thanks entirely to his devotion to George A. Romero’s groundbreaking originals, Night of the Living Dead and Dawn of the Dead. He may have been more successful by incorporating some of the thematic elements and plot developments of Day of the Dead (or even Land of the Dead) and doing something more original with the zombies.

As it is, The Dead Don’t Die doesn’t really succeed as a Jarmusch film or as a zombie film because it refuses to embrace either approach.


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