A thoroughly enjoyable, if not incoherent zombie comedy packed with an all star cast.
From the outset, Jim Jarmusch’s latest feature sounds instantly appealing. The thought of a zombie comedy from the director of Only Lovers Left Alive and starring a host of A list actors seems perplexing but intriguing enough to warrant some sort of interest. If only that was the full story as while The Dead Don’t Die has plenty of mischievous fun with its conventions and character tropes, it’s also a frustrating lumping piece of work that feels messy in execution and somewhat begging for a resolution rather than a half baked unsatisfactory halt.
Bill Murray and Adam Driver play as two cops, Cliff Robertson and Ronnie Peterson, in the sleepy town of Centerville, home to a bunch of zany residents including a new undertaker at the local funeral parlour (Tilda Swinton) who is trained in the art of the Samurai sword, and an eccentric outcast that lives in the nearby wilderness called Hermit Bob (Tom Waits). Eventually, strange ongoings begin to take place as TV news reports warn about a change in the Earth’s rotation due to polar fracking, pets start to behave weirdly and soon enough, the dead begin to rise from their graves as a zombie apocalypse threatens the future of mankind for good.
There is a postmodern sense about the film’s aesthetics that provides some charm towards proceedings as both the local ‘Moonlight Motel’ and the retro themed diner seem to have been hauled from an 80s horror flick, but Peterson carries around an iPhone and even drives a Smart car much to the amusement of the screening I sat in. It’s clear Jarmusch is finding delight in providing little idiosyncratic moments and it’s through this where some of the film’s pleasure is derived from in the first hour.
Most of it is provided by the interactions taking place between characters that bear forth many of the film’s deadpan (if not, un-deadpan) comedy and even though the script has its fair share of throwaway gags that have been seen before, it’s the stars that elevate it into worthwhile viewing. Both Murray and Driver are excellent and extremely likeable in the buddy cop relationship and regardless of the fact they don’t need to do much to sell the jokes with their blank faces, it’s a treat to watch them in their element. Likewise, the rest of the cast are as equally entertaining. Chloë Sevigny is the perfect contrast as Officer Mindy Morrison who struggles to do her job as total carnage ensues, and there is a cameo by Iggy Pop as a zombie which I couldn’t help but laugh at due to its sheer absurdity.
Unfortunately, once the zombie horde descends on Centerville, the narrative stumbles until it inevitably collapses under the weight of its own convictions. I can imagine that the last 15 minutes will test some audience member’s patience due to some offbeat meta-comedy that comes out of left field and a character conclusion that felt utterly bizarre, whether it was on purpose or not.
In addition, there is a lack of direction in regards to plot trajectory with one crucial character arc half finished and the film sort of abruptly ending as though you are turning over a page of a book only to be greeted by blank white paper. I’m very unsure if this was the actual point or not, and it leaves the film with an impression of bewilderment that had some viewers, like myself, gasping for a reason about the events that have just unfolded only to be left unanswered.
But despite these fundamental flaws that could totally sink a movie like this, it just about hangs together thanks to a blistering first half full of running gags about repeated songs, wild animals and genre tropes that had myself fully invested in a set of washed up characters performed exquisitely by a stellar cast. There is something ironic about having a title called The Dead Don’t Die in that there is a suggestion that by the end it has completely eked out every last inch of its life. However, like a zombie, it still manages to crawl and clamber until it finally drags itself over the finishing line.
The Dead Don’t Die (2019), directed by Jim Jarmusch, is distributed in the UK by Universal Pictures, certificate 15.