Zombie Comedy Feels Like a Retread But Still Gets Plenty of Laughs
When I first heard the premise of The Dead Don’t Die, the new film from Jim Jarmusch (Paterson, Broken Flowers), I thought: he’s going to do for the zombie genre what he did for the vampire genre with his 2013 masterpiece Only Lovers Left Alive. He’s going to find the subtext lying beneath very well-trod cinematic ground and give us a new spin on a tired sub-genre. Well, he doesn’t … but (most curiously) he doesn’t even try.
Lovers deconstructed the vampire film by jettisoning the majority of the horror tropes and delving into the ennui hiding in the heart of immortality. Instead of a blood-drinking gorefest or supernatural thriller, it was a look at a mid-life crisis that’s lasted a hundred years set against the decay of inner city Detroit. It made its audience relate to a pair of vampires who’ve seen it all and done it all and wonder what’s next in their lives.
The Dead Don’t Die, on the other hand, is a broad, often deadpan, zombie comedy ala Shaun of the Dead. The true surprise is that Shaun is a far superior film. As The Dead Don’t Die opens, Cliff Robertson (Bill Murray) and Ronnie Peterson (Adam Driver) are driving their beat as law enforcement officers in the small town of Centerville. As the sign at the city limits says it’s “A Real Nice Place”. They notice that their watches have stopped, their cell phones don’t work and daylight is lasting well into the night. Sooner than you can say “zombie apocalypse”, the dead are walking the Earth and an ensemble cast of townsfolk are trying to make sense of a world gone mad.
My criticism of this film is as obvious as the film itself. The zombie genre is tired thanks to nine seasons and counting of The Walking Dead and countless feature films (28 Days Later, World War Z). Releases like The Battery (2012), The Girl with All the Gifts (2016), and It Comes at Night (2017) were all artistic successes because those films found the humanity inside the genre trappings. Zombies may be roaming the streets, but those films gave us characters with whom we could identify and, ultimately, care about.
In the background of The Dead Don’t Die, we see frequent news broadcasts that blame fracking and corporate greed for the zombie apocalypse. The Earth is spinning awkwardly on its access and the laws of nature no longer apply. That plot beat serves as an anti-Trump, liberal jab, but it’s also an excellent genre metaphor. The zombie film has been strip-mined to the point that there’s no gold left in them thar cinematic hills. And Jarmusch doesn’t try to dig beyond the surface.
The performances are perfect for what they are, but they don’t provide any insight into the denizens of Centerville. Bill Murray is a master of deadpan delivery, and Adam Driver is there with him step for step, joke for joke. He’s proving himself to be a mini-Murray when he tackles comedy. However, the main characters are as bland as the town slogan. And that’s the danger of deadpan comedy. The primary characters are so flat that they have no personality, and consequently, you don’t really care what happens to them.
Tilda Swinton plays the town undertaker who moonlights as a samurai swords-woman, and her character is so damn bizarre that you find yourself wondering what an entire film from her point-of-view would look like. She dispatches zombies ala Michonne on The Walking Dead as she makes her way toward a big third act revelation that I won’t spoil here. (If her final plot beat were based on a true story, it would explain a lot about Ms. Swinton’s unearthly acting talent.)
So, am I saying you should avoid The Dead Don’t Die like you would a herd of wild … uh … zombies? Not at all. It’s an entertaining, but completely forgettable, comedy. It’s got plenty of laughs and some hilarious moments where the cast breaks the fourth wall. But, compared to the rest of Jarmusch’s filmography, it’s a trifle, a fun genre exercise between real films. I actually hope you do see it in theaters, and it makes a boatload of money, so its gifted filmmaker can raise the funds to make a more interesting movie next.