A thoroughly enjoyable, if not entirely coherent, 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, starring a whole host of A-list actors, seems perplexing but intriguing enough to warrant interest. If only that was the full story: while The Dead Don’t Die has plenty of mischievous fun with its genre conventions and character tropes, it’s also a frustrating, lumpy piece of work that feels messy in execution, begging for a tidy resolution rather than a half-baked unsatisfactory halt.
Bill Murray and Adam Driver play two cops, Officers Robertson and Peterson, in the sleepy town of Centerville, home to a number of zany residents. These include the new undertaker at the local funeral parlour (Tilda Swinton), trained in the arts of the samurai, and an eccentric outcast that lives in the nearby wilderness called Hermit Bob (Tom Waits). Eventually, strange happenings begin to take place. TV news reports warn about a change in the Earth’s rotation due to polar fracking, leading to pets behaving 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 as both the local ‘Moonlight Motel’ and retro-themed diner seem to have been hauled from an ’80s horror flick, but Officer Peterson carries an iPhone and even drives a Smart car. It’s clear Jarmusch finds delight in creating little idiosyncratic moments and juxtapositions – it’s through these that much of the film’s pleasure is derived.
Most of the fun comes in the interactions between characters and the deadpan comedy that springs from these situations. Even though the script has its fair share of throwaway gags that have been seen before, it’s the stars that elevate the material into worthwhile viewing. Both Murray and Driver are excellent and extremely likeable in their buddy cop relationship. 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. The rest of the cast are equally as entertaining. Chloë Sevigny is the perfect contrast as Officer Mindy Morrison, struggling to do her job as total carnage ensues. There is a cameo by Iggy Pop as a zombie, hilarious because of its sheer absurdity.
Unfortunately, once the zombie horde descends on Centerville, the narrative stumbles until it inevitably collapses under its own weight. The last 15 minutes will test the patience of some audiences, with some of the offbeat meta-comedy coming completely out of left field and a character conclusion that feels bizarre – its purpose uncertain. There is a general lack of direction in regards to plot trajectory. The Dead Don’t Die ends as though you are turning over a page of a book only to be greeted by blank white paper. It leaves an impression of bewilderment, the viewer gasping for a reason to explain the events that have just unfolded only to be left unanswered.
Despite these fundamental flaws, the film isn’t completely sunk. It just about hangs together thanks to a blistering first half, full of effective running gags on songs, wild animals and genre tropes, that has you fully invested in a set of washed-up characters inhabited by a stellar cast. There is something ironic about the title being The Dead Don’t Die – there is a suggestion that by the end it has completely eked out every last inch of its life. 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.