3 out of 5 stars.
From the get-go, police officer Ronnie Peterson (played by Adam Driver), tells his colleagues—and the audience—that this story is going to end badly. The journey to that ending, however, is a light-hearted romp through the zombie apocalypse, told with writer and director Jim Jarmusch’s signature brand of deadpan humor, with a touch of a political message thrown in.
“The Dead Don’t Die” is set in the tiny town of Centerville. It’s obvious from the opening scene that not much happens here; police chief Cliff Robertson (Bill Murray) and officer Ronnie are out in the woods warning Hermit Bob (Tom Waits) not to steal any of Farmer Miller’s (Steve Buscemi) chickens. But the town is struck by tragedy that night when a pair of bodies rise from their graves and go on the hunt for flesh. Soon, reanimated corpses are appearing left and right, leaving the townspeople to defend themselves.
With “The Dead Don’t Die,” Jarmusch attempts to accomplish two things. The first is to create an ode—not a parody, mind you—to horror movies, particularly George Romero-esque zombie movies. This is done pretty well, although despite the hordes of zombies and occasional gore I’d hesitate to refer to this movie fully as a horror film. But there are references peppered throughout the film, and Jarmusch takes the usual zombie movie format and imbues it with his own style to create something new.
The second thing Jarmusch does is uses this dark humor to deliver a message about the current state of politics and the environment. The Earth being knocked off its axis due to “polar fracking” is attributed to the sudden rise of the dead, and the fact that no one seems to take it seriously isn’t so far off from the lack of concern so many people exhibit toward climate change in our world. The film shows a lot of cynicism toward the current state of the world, primarily through Hermit Bob, who remains an outsider to much of the action. The story doesn’t end in a way that leaves the audience feeling like everything is going to be okay; rather, it leaves you feeling like we’re all doomed, but also doesn’t offer up any insight into how we can try to fix the mess we’ve made.
But despite its sour conclusion, “The Dead Don’t Die” is a very funny movie, one that takes its time building up the humor in certain scenarios. It ranges from darkly funny to flat out absurd, and includes a lot of in jokes and references from the characters to the fact that they are in the movie. The consistently deadpan delivery of Driver and Murray is amusing, and they’re fun to watch play off each other, but after a while it makes their performances seem too flat. We get to know a variety of other characters too, but they don’t serve a lot of purpose in the story other than to just be there—but it is interesting to speculate how their reactions to the zombies says more about their characters, and the entire groups of people they represent. Among these are Olivia, Stella, and Geronimo (Taliyah Whitaker, Maya Delmont, and Jahi Winston), the young inmates of the juvenile detention center; Zoe, Jack, and Zach (Selena Gomez, Austin Butler, and Luka Sabbat), three hipsters from the city who are passing through town; and cameos from the likes of Iggy Pop, Sara Driver, and Sturgill Simpson, who also performs the titular theme song that is played throughout the movie. There’s also gas station attendant and film nerd Bobby (Caleb Landry Jones), hardware store owner Hank Thompson (Danny Glover), and reporter Posie Juarez (Rosie Perez). Chloë Sevigny plays Officer Mindy, the only person in the movie who reacts to the zombies sanely—that is to say, she goes insane. But stealing the show is Tilda Swinton, who plays Scottish mortician and apparent ninja warrior Zelda Winston and manages to be both wacky and restrained at the same time.
“The Dead Don’t Die” is entertaining, but it’s perhaps too weird to pull together all the different elements of the film successfully. But that weirdness also conveys an ambition that ought to be celebrated, if not for succeeded, then at least for trying.
Runtime: 104 minutes. Rated R.