REVIEW: THE DEAD DON’T DIE – an exercise in the zombie film genre that fails to truly spring to life.


Director Jim Jarmusch continues to play with the idea of genre deconstruction with his work; this time tackling the zombie film canon. Yet, despite some impressive names & Jarmusch’s signature wryness, the film disappoints and struggles to utter what defines it.

As I watched Jim Jarmusch’s highly-anticipated contribution to the genre of zombie films, billed as the greatest cast ever disassembled for a zombie film, I kept thinking of Tim Burton’s 1996 film Mars Attacks.

For those who may have never seen it, Mars Attacks is Tim Burton’s ode to 1950’s outer space and alien films. Based on a series of Topps bubble gum cards from the period featuring ravenous, big-brained Martians who manifest the worst impulses of their id on unsuspecting Earth men and women, the cards are little vignettes from the invasion. Some show attractive blondes ripped from drive-in makeout sessions, others showing the destruction of famous landmarks as the Martians frolic in the ravaging. It’s not an easy thing to adapt a set of trading cards, so Burton chose to do so in a series of vignettes which ultimately connect in a bigger story. You get slices of life and some of the characters dealing with this catastrophe and hopefully finding a way to fight back against the gleeful monsters. The film itself doesn’t define itself easily; it is largely played straight, with dry black comedy throughout. Because the cards themselves parody popular films, the film is largely Burton’s love letter to the genre, playing with ideas he enjoys while drawing out how silly some others are by showcasing them in their silliness. But you always get the idea that Burton loves this subject matter, this was his first film after Ed Wood and is adding some spin to it. His ideas about unlikely heroes and how the outsider can come out on top. Ed Wood himself directing one of the most famous sci-fi/zombie movies ever with Plan 9 From Outer Space, played straight, but it was an early example of how zombie films as metaphor can be used to comment about society, injustice, even the treatment of the poor, feeble and disenfranchised as Plan 9 does to a degree.

This springs to mind in thinking about Jarmusch’s film because, by and large, The Dead Don’t Die, is a well-crafted film. Jarmusch stages some great shots and has reunited many of his regulars and favorites on a film that seems like it should be poised to say something really interesting about the genre of zombie films or social commentary using that as a lens. Jarmusch is largely known as a filmmaker who deconstructs genre in his work. From using vampires as a lens to view disconnection to society and what makes life worth living in 2013’s Only Lovers Left Alive, to using the genre of the samurai film as a peek into the world of the hired guns of mafiosos in 1999’s Ghost Dog: Way of the Samurai. When this isn’t the case, we get interesting character studies like 2005’s Broken Flowers or 2016’s Paterson.

I use this as a preface because for the most part, The Dead Don’t Die doesn’t really follow those modes and it’s difficult to see if the movie is really saying anything, which in and of itself is a big disappointment. Jarmusch stages several vignettes in the town of Centerville, described as “a nice place” as its motto. We largely follow two police officers, Cliff (Bill Murray) and Ronnie Peterson (Adam Driver), who along with Minerva (Chloe Sevigny) constitute the police force of the sleepy town. The two are tasked with finding Bob (Tom Waites), a local hermit who is accused of stealing chickens from a local farmer and right-wing redneck, Frank Miller (Steve Buscemi). The two warn off Bob, despite the fact that he shoots at them but they don’t arrest him largely because Cliff dislikes Frank. Meanwhile, Minerva is unnerved at being at the station, given they are housing the body of local drunk, Mallory (Carol Kane) since the local funeral home run by newcomer Zelda Winston (Tilda Swinton) is currently full. At the same time, newscaster Posie Juarez (Rosie Perez) warns of weather and meteorological catastrophes caused by polar fracking causing the Earth to spin off its axis. One of the consequences, which we soon see, is the reanimation of the carnivorous dead. At the same time, a group of hipsters, led by a girl Zoe (Selena Gomez) pull up to a gas station in the 1968 Pontiac LeMons from the seminal zombie film Night of the Living Dead and ask local shopkeep Bobby (Caleb Landry Jones) where they should sleep for the night as he points them to a motel run by Larry Fessenden’s Danny.

Now the reason I mentioned Mars Attacks. In that film, those vignettes tie together to say something or play to an ending where those roles come together to push a character’s agenda. Jarmusch’s film, from the get-go, breaks the fourth wall. We never can really come to believe in those characters because from the get-go Adam Driver is playing Adam Driver playing Ronnie Peterson, who is essentially Paterson in a zombie movie. He tells Murray’s Cliff a song sounds familiar because its the theme song to the movie they’re in. As an audience member, it throws you off and makes you wonder what will be the payoff for this. Later, Murray’s Cliff breaks the fourth wall and does the same, before they close the film out as a combo of themselves and their characters. It’s almost like something out of the film The Final Girls, but with again, no real payoff. The real reason for the vignette structure of the film is each vignette represents an aspect of the zombie genre Jarmusch wants to address. There’s the social commentary as embodied in Waites’ Bob who is something of a Romero figure as every action in the film means something greater to him. The zombies eat flesh but crave what they wanted in life – wi-fi, Ambien, Oxycontin. There’s a play on kids being the ones who know what’s going on before everyone, a play on the Walking Dead’s Rick and Shane, even on the absurdity of a character like Michonne, and even Plan 9 and Night of the Living Dead.

The disappointment comes in the fact that beyond showcasing different aspects of the genre, it doesn’t really add anything to it the way his other films add to the genres they explore. Moreover, we never really get a character examination. Everyone in the film is playing a character as deeply drawn as an SNL parody sketch at best; for example, Steve Buscemi is playing himself essentially, the only tip that he’s a redneck is that he wears a parody of a MAGA hat when we meet him. We don’t see any of Cliff’s inner life, we never get to understand what the story is with Tilda Swinton’s character, who is odd and whose story in the film has a bizarre ending. There’s a group of incarcerated kids who exist to plot dump a reason for the zombie plague, then run off to hide and then disappear from the film completely. The reason for Richie’s pessimism throughout the film is another aspect of breaking the fourth wall that really undercuts any characterization in the film. In this sense, even though there is a fun wryness and quirkiness through the film, it’s surface-level. The RZA works as a delivery driver for a company called Wu-PS. There are scenes that happen 3 or 4 times exactly the same way, which makes it funny through repetition, as well as a silly joke that is essentially a piece of product placement. In many ways, it feels like a long series of SNL digital shorts. That being said, that doesn’t really equal a good film.

In the end, that’s the downside of the film, Jarmusch is capable of doing so much here, with a fun genre to play in and a rich cast to use to do so. He’s done it before and here he has an all-star team. But, instead, he doesn’t even play ball. Especially after films like Paterson and Only Lovers Left Alive, its a real disappointment and as much as I enjoy the silly scenes in this film, it feels like the potential of what this movie could have been was largely left to a potter’s field. While Mars Attacks works on a similar level, I never got the feeling that Jarmusch cares about this genre that he’s addressing, so much as using it as a chance to have fun with some of his friends, which is fine. But it results in a film that never really comes to life.