The Dead Don’t Die
Jim Jarmusch is a director I have, with some conscious intention, avoided in the past. There has been little about the promotion of his notable efforts like Stranger Than Paradise, Only Lovers Left Alive or the more recent Paterson that has entranced me, before you get into Jarmusch’s reputation as a minimalist director, who prioritises mood over narrative at every turn. For some this is enough, but for me it isn’t. I have had my dalliances with so-called “No Wave” cinema, but I usually end up underwhelmed.
Why The Dead Don’t Die then? I’ll admit it may have been a case of “Best Worst Option” on an empty Monday evening, combined with my appreciation for the cast that Jarmusch had managed to assemble. And the genre in question abounds with the possibilities of satire, if the director is good enough to craft something unique (ie, Shaun Of The Dead). The promotion promised something primarily comedic, perhaps in the general area of Ed Wright’s horror send-up classic. Is that what Jarmusch set out to deliver, or is his attempt at zombie parody obtuse to the point of inanity?
Odd things are happening in the quiet town of Centreville, when “polar fracking” sets the Earth off its axis: animals act strangely, the day/night cycle becomes unpredictable and the moon glows an ominous purple. The phenomenon is observed by the town’s various residents, including Police chief Cliff (Bill Murray), his deputies Ronnie (Adam Driver) and Mindy (Chloe Sevigny), bizarre mortician Zelda (Tilda Swinton) and cult film expert Bobby (Caleb Landry Jones): when the dead start to leave their graves and feed on the living, all of them must fight to survive.
I need to make a note for the future: “Best Worst Option” is not the best way of deciding to go and see a film. The Dead Don’t Die is, at the very least, an interesting film more than worthy of discussion for what it tries to say and do. But that does not mean that it is any good: unfortunately obtuseness and inanity are, indeed, the order of the day, in what I would describe as the sub-sub-genre of “mumblecore zombie”.
The Dead Don’t Die is a very weird movie, something even the cast members will say, over and over again, including in scenes where characters break the fourth wall and talk about the director. It isn’t really a comedy movie, it isn’t really a drama. Hell, it isn’t even really a zombie horror movie either. It is, instead, an odd mix of episodic narrative and blunt allegory, that simply doesn’t work.
As a film, The Dead Don’t Die really does struggle with its narrative, which is a cut-up and fitful thing. It feels to me like Jarmusch wasn’t really sure which of the various threads he introduces to focus on, and so characters and sub-plots enter into the story that do not appear to have much in the way of point, terminating in several cases in the middle of the film. I think of the “hipsters” (including one Selena Gomez in a wasted role) or the teenagers from a juvenile detention facility, who appear initially important but then just, well, aren’t.
Perhaps Jarmusch thinks it is bold and daring to play with his characters in this way, or maybe he just bit off more than he could chew with the ensemble. Either way, the end result is a disjointed production that feels more like a fever dream in its presentation, something that not even breaking the fourth wall a few times can fix (when Bill Murray asks why a song on the radio sounds so familiar, Driver responds “Because it’s the theme tune”). Jarmusch doesn’t do drama as you will be familiar with it, and he certainly doesn’t do suspense. So what does he do?
Jim Jarmusch has a strange sense of humour, if this is his idea of comedy. It isn’t that the film has no instances of humour, but they are few and far between, and all of them fall into the general realm of absurdist observation or deadpan reactions to really awful events. The best is easily Cliff casually inquiring if Ronnie ever played any minor league baseball after witnessing him decapitate a zombie with a machete; the comedy is in how nonchalant and straight the exchange is played. But when every exchange, be it meant comedically or dramatically, is played in such a fashion, the intended effect tends to be diluted. In essence, The Dead Don’t Die dies a death because its cast have presumably been entrusted to keep things as flat as possible.
I’m not really sure why Jarmusch choose to do this. He has the supreme comedic talent of Bill Murray on his hands, one of the best in the business in Tilda Swinton, and a host of excellent actors aside from them. But none of them are given the opportunity to really rise to the material. Everyone delivers their dialogue in flat, clipped sentences, as if nothing that is happening around them is really all that notable. The intention of this is beyond me, other than it maybe being a commentary on the lackadaisical modern reaction to critical events (it’s not hard to see the Trump illusions, with one character wearing a “Make America White Again” cap, or the nods to profit-driven environmental catastrophe). Is Jarmusch saying that we are too blase about the metaphorical zombies in our existence? Did he have to neuter Bill Murray to make that point?
Connected to the performances is the nature of the characters, and here at least I do think that Jarmusch is on surer ground. Just about everyone, save Tom Waits as reclusive wood-dweller and a handful of teenagers, could be characterised in negative terms. Cliff is ineffective, Ronnie is uncaring, Mindy seems oddly ill-disposed to actual police work, Zelda is a socially strange person, Steve Buscemi’s farmer is a rascist, etc etc. At one point the three cops leave a besieged building to its fate and at other points Cliff goes out of his way to leave those he considers morally inferior to their fate.
Jarmusch is supposed to have a reputation for getting to the heart of humanity in his films, but if so then fans of his must have a very negative, doom-laden view of their species. Basically everyone is nearly entirely looking out for themselves, and that appears to be Jarmusch’s point: that society is too introverted in its priorities, and that such a state of affairs will invariably end in catastrophe. But in depicting his characters as such, combined with their annoyingly uncaring attitude to the end of the world, the director, intentionally or otherwise, detaches the audience from what is happening, because we don’t really have anyone worth rooting for or being interested in. If Adam Driver doesn’t care about the zombie apocalypse, why should I? Even Shaun Of The Dead had stakes and characters you wanted to see survive, with commentary on the zombie-like nature of modern life that wasn’t delivered like an avalanche.
If George A. Romero really mastered the subtle blending of consumerism critique with the zombie genre in his Dawn Of The Dead in 1978, then Jarmusch in 2019 takes the two ingredients and smashes them together. His zombies gravitate to the things they were obsessed with in life, which tends to be coffee, pills, alcohol and, shock horror, mobile phones. Yes, a film with a cast this good decides to make a point that young people on mobile phones are like zombies, and even outlines this incredibly unnecessary idea in a closing monologue that is little less than a bully pulpit sermon, as bad as I have heard since Brad Bird’s Tomorrowland. In so doing, Jarmusch betrays himself as an old crank who thinks things were better for small town American back in his day. I can hear Adam West in every frame of this unoriginal, uninspired drivel: “And why doesn’t Batman dance anymore?”
Perhaps it is just the nature of the production, but in terms of cinematography I couldn’t help but feel like I was looking at a film from a man who so desperately wants to be seen as a Wes Anderson-type, but who really isn’t in that league. The Dead Don’t Die favours static shots of building exteriors and stage-like framing of the principals, with direct contrasts and symmetry: on those occasions when Jarmusch is a bit more inspired, we see Tilda Swinton engaged in kendo meditation or Tom Waits wondering the woods commenting on everything he sees. Those moments are exceptional: The Dead Don’t Die is a by the numbers visual piece otherwise, an attempt to recreate the stereotype of rural Americana, right down to Centerville’s welcoming sign (Population: 738, with a motto of “A Real Nice Place”).
If this is the kind of filmmaker that Jim Jarmusch is, you can colour me unimpressed. Here, he has attempted to make a satire of the zombie genre mixed with an allegory of modern obsessions: on both levels the film is a failure. It isn’t funny enough despite the potential of its premise and cast (who are shockingly wasted) and its observations on modern life are far too basic for the manner in which they are delivered. I don’t want to discount that the film was mis-sold, Ruby Sparks-like, by those responsible for its marketing, but even strictly on its own merits, there is little to redeem The Dead Don’t Die. Considering the elements that Jarmusch had to play with, it must be seen as little more than a missed opportunity. Not recommended.
(All images are copyright of Focus Features).