The Dead Don’t Die is a movie that, on paper, sounds fabulous. Indie icon Jim Jarmusch assembled an amazing cast—Bill Murray, Adam Driver, Chloe Sevigny, Tom Waits, Steve Buscemi, Tilda Swinton, Danny Glover, and a murderer’s row of others—and the last time splashed around in the horror pool we got Only Lovers Left Alive, one of my favorites of 2014. But goddamn if this doesn’t miss in every conceivable way.
The intent is obvious: to skewer and send up zombie movies. It’s not quite a spoof, more of an off-kilter comedic lampooning. Here’s the problem: what’s on screen watches like the product of someone who doesn’t know, understand, or have any affinity for zombie movies, nor has seen any outside of the first two Romero Dead movies. The whole film feels awkwardly condescending, like it can’t even deign to interact with the subject matter, not to mention slapdash, half-hearted, ham-fisted, and amateurish—things Jarmusch certainly is not.
Set in the small Pennsylvania town of Centerville, one of many nods to Night of the Living Dead, Jarmusch assembles a quirky cadre of locals. Tom Waits plays a local hobo, Steve Buscemi a racist, MAGA hat-wearing farmer, Tilda Swinton a sword-wielding undertaker with a affected accent and affection for eastern culture (think a caricature of her Doctor Strange character), and so on and so forth. But the primary concern are bemused Sheriff Cliff Robertson (Murray) and his deputy, Ronnie Peterson (Driver).
Driver is, admittedly, really, really good in The Dead Don’t Die. His straight-laced, earnest goof is fun and funny and the only one in the entire damn picture who makes the dry, droll humor work. We’re talking plain-white-toast dry humor, and while this approach may not be the absolute worst choice, it’s brutally misplaced and excruciatingly executed. At best it comes across flat and toothless, at worst it plays like absolute indifference on the part of the cast. I hate to question an actor’s motivation and dedication because I obviously have no clue, but holy hell, Bill Murray does not appear to give a single shit. Every line reading plays like he couldn’t even be bothered.
The whole film comes across as half-baked, listless, and formless. It contains zero tension or momentum, and plays out like a string of loosely connected bits. Like Jarmusch created characters for his pals, they showed up for a few days when they were available, shot some scenes, and he later constructed a movie out of what he had. The script mistakes quirks for character development, there’s a complete dearth of emotional investment, and they’re all so inconsequential, with a few exceptions, almost every character could be removed without altering the movie or narrative in any substantial way.
A thread with Selena Gomez and two young men is a prime example of all of these issues. On a road trip, the trio stops in Centerville, has a few scenes and minimal interactions with the main characters, then unceremoniously dies off screen. Many characters meet similar ends. A scene cuts, the script later tells us, oh by the way, this or that person died, Cliff and Ronnie shrug, comment on how that’s really too bad, and they’re done, tossed to the side like meaningless trash. Not that we need to see everyone ripped to shreds by zombies, but this illustrates how little connection and investment there truly is; every person is just a momentary blip, completely disposable and of no consequence. We don’t spend any time with them, so it’s hard to care when they die—and to be fair, no one in the movie cares when they die either.
The attempts to comment on things outside the movie are painful. Between Cliff and Ronnie, and only them, there are a couple of quick self-aware meta moments where they offhandedly mention they’re in a movie. They’re forced, out of place, and plays like the script has no idea what else to do. The theme song, a country ditty by Sturgill Simpson, which is fine, plays repeatedly throughout, and each time characters discuss it. Clumsy, crammed-in political observations abound—Buscemi wears a “Make America White Again” hat and fracking shifts the Earth off its axis, which causes the dead to rise. Sure, why not? And the whole thing wraps up with a blunt, “Who are the real zombies? The walking dead or people who go to the mall?” It’s the equivalent of high school stoner philosophical observations.
I legitimately love a lot of Jim Jarmusch movies, he’s shown an affinity for horror in the past, and he assembled an all-timer of a cast. Which is what makes The Dead Don’t Die such a frustrating misfire. Outside of Adam Driver, and casting Iggy Pop as a zombie is a stroke of brilliance—the guy looks like he already has no blood left in his body—nothing works. Jokes don’t land, personality tics ring artificial, there’s no narrative momentum or tension to speak of. The film plays like someone old and out of touch trying desperately to be hip and cool, only to fail in miserable fashion with every choice. Then again, maybe Jarmusch just hates zombie movies, I don’t know.