Even with Jim Jarmusch in the driving seat here, this zombie outing fails to take viewers anywhere they haven’t been before.
Another comedy zombie movie? Cue exasperated sigh. Haven’t we mined the daft undead for all they have yet? With the recent release of The Dead Don’t Die and a second Zombieland offering hitting screens later this year, it sadly appears not. I’m biased though, long ruled by an intense loathing for zom-coms. In my book, the undead wear a fearsome horror hat far more comfortably. All the same, when I twigged that supremo of absurdist, deadpan humor Jim Jarmusch (of Stranger Than Paradise fame) was in the driving seat for this comical zombie outing, all the while providing social commentary about fracking, I thought, ‘Hang about Stevie boy, we might be going somewhere new.’ At that, and a swift glance in the rear-view mirror to see Adam Driver, Tilda Swinton, Bill Murray, Chloë Sevigny, and Steve Buscemi along for the ride, I was in.
Jarmusch’s usually special brand of indie film-making artistry is at once both peculiar and compelling, his stories driven by characters seemingly impassive and dead inside yet still, in a sense, animate. Sounds familiar, doesn’t it? On that level, it’s easy to understand why he’d write and direct a zany flick about soulless, rotting corpses staggering through a bleak existence. On all other levels, it’s easier to wish he hadn’t. Jarmusch’s endeavors with The Dead Don’t Die are as lacking in oomph as the corpses clawing from their graves to terrorize the sleepy town of Centerville, or the misguided halfwits giving the green light to the fracking destroying our planet.
His jaunt may have begun with me in the passenger seat, bouncing with curiosity as to where we’d go, but it wasn’t long before I reached for the door handle, contemplating my escape from this vehicle speeding in the wrong direction. I wondered if the actors, too, had been tempted to bail once they sussed their writer-director gave them little of weight to play with. The lot of them stuck around for the long-haul though, doing the best they can in a sorry situation.
Murray and Driver are the first two we meet as police officers Cliff Robertson and Ronnie Peterson, grilling a bedraggled local crackpot about a missing chicken. It’s not long before Sevigny turns up as a moany part of the town’s crime-fighting crew; Buscemi as a grouchy, racist farmer; and Swinton as a many-sided Mortician from my home country, Scotland. And the impressive, sprawling cast extends well beyond them, with a daft cameo appearance here and there.
At some point – and this is probably when things begin to veer off course – Jarmusch goes balls-to-the-wall self-referential, occasionally drawing his mind away from recognizable genre conventions to take in the sights of satire. Only, that satire is pretty humdrum and lacking much in the way of ingenuity. So, during these breathers, you might want to follow the lead of Carol Kane’s decaying corpse, and go on the hunt for a nice, cold glass of chardonnay to take the edge off. This all gives a firm impression The Dead Don’t Die is the biggest load of tosh to hit screens of late, but to say this zombie escapade isn’t vaguely entertaining would be a pure fib. That said, we can thank the acting powerhouses carrying the movie for most of its highlights.
This isn’t the Jarmusch I know he’s capable of being; a film-maker who usually brings his A-game, and on substantial projects too. Although his fingerprints are undoubtedly all over The Dead Don’t Die, it’s patently one of his least notable works to date. I may not typically be a fan of the zom-com, but I’d expect one delivered in 2019, and one with a genius behind the wheel, to be streets ahead of this. Alas, we’re only covering old ground here.