This has been a somewhat difficult review for me to crack. While The Dead Don’t Die, a zombie apocalypse comedy from writer/director Jim Jarmusch is a film that didn’t entirely work for me, there are several elements sprinkled throughout it that are worth sitting down for a watch. I’d be curious to see how this flick plays differently to different people.
With that in mind, let’s start with the good: the cast is the single strongest aspect of the film (and has been made the subject of most of the film’s marketing). Jim Jarmusch can pretty much put whoever he wants in his films (and often has), but this has to be his best cast since Coffee and Cigarettes. The MVPs are obviously Tilda Swinton as Zelda Winston, the sword-toting mortician, and Adam Driver as the oddly calm and fourth wall-demolishing Officer Ronnie Peterson. However, each actor in the film, regardless of the size of their role, imbues their character with a full personality and sells much of their oddball dialogue.
The problem here is that none of these fun characters are ever really given anything to do. Even our lead officers simply spend the film wandering from place to place until they find some zombies. There’s no sense of urgency. In fact, that brings me to my single biggest problem with the film: The Dead Don’t Die is a movie where nothing matters. And I don’t mean that in an interesting nihilistic way, but rather in the most frustrating narrative sense.
This is a movie where we are introduced to multiple characters who vanish for long stretches of screen time, only to turn up dead later. A movie where we will follow a character attempting to escape from certain death, who will say out loud that they know where they can hide, and who will then vanish from the rest of the movie’s runtime. Entirely.
There are entire plot lines that go nowhere. The movie is full of murky or nonsensical character motivations (again, not in a fun way), where randomness and repetition take the place of comedy. This is a film where characters are selectively aware that they are in a film, a film that decides in its final three minutes that it had a message and a moral, albeit one cribbed from Henry Melville and a 40-year-old George Romero film.
This may seem harsh, but watching The Dead Don’t Die is an occasionally frustrating experience. You’ll wonder why we’ve kept cutting back to certain characters, only for their storylines to be abandoned. Meanwhile, we’ll cut back to other characters who are in an entirely different setting than before and appear to have had an important conversation about their plans for survival that we weren’t (and won’t be) privy to. The film occasionally feels like a collection of deleted scenes, or like Jarmusch got a bunch of his friends together to shoot parts of this horror script he wrote, with plans to figure out how it all fits together later.
But again, when it works, boy does it work. The sight gags involving Driver’s tiny car elicited a genuine guffaw from me, as did Carol Kane’s single scene in the film. Most of Caleb Landry Jones’ scenes as the lonely shop attendant succeed at making one simultaneously giggle and cringe at the awkwardness. Tom Waits is a joy to listen to as he pontificates on the nature of man and how screwed up everything has become, even if his character feels otherwise divorced from the rest of the film.
Otherwise, it just feels like a mumblecore comedy with zombie set dressing, or a horror film where there’s no tension because the characters themselves are too ironically detached (save for the excellent Chloë Sevigny as Officer Mindy) to be afraid. Maybe that’s the point, but it mostly didn’t work for me.
The Blu-ray release of this film is somewhat bare-bones, but has a few fun little clips of behind the scenes shenanigans. There’s something truly enjoyable about seeing zombies lurch toward craft services or limbering up before a big action sequence. There’s also a fun little interview with Bill Murray on his skills as a zombie killer.
As I said, there are things to enjoy here. For some people, this may be exactly the kind of “zom-com” they’ve always desired, and that’s awesome! For me, though, it felt like the sum of its parts didn’t add up to a cohesive whole.