The Dead Don’t Die (Focus Features) - Review | Under the Radar - Music Magazine
Thursday, September 24th, 2020  

The Dead Don’t Die

Studio: Focus Features
Directed by Jim Jarmusch

Jun 15, 2019 Web Exclusive
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Jim Jarmusch, while frequently funny, rarely ventures into outright comedy. He works often and well with explicitly comedic talents like Bill Murray and Roberto Begnini, working them into his deadpan universe in ways that both play to their comic strengths but also reflect and accentuate the bleakness (blankness?) of the world around them. His films are funny in spite of themselves.

All this is to note how jarring it is not only to see him attempt something approaching straight comedy, but to see him fall so short. The Dead Don't Die finds Jarmusch once again mining a depleted genre for something novel—his last attempt, the languorous, post-Twilight vampire exercise, Only Lovers Left Alive, was far more successful—but it is unclear from the finished film exactly what his intention was in taking on the moribund world of zombies.

The Dead Don't Die finds the residents of sleepy Centerville (it appears to exist in the same upstate New York as Jarmusch's Broken Flowers) contending with a fracking-induced zombie apocalypse. Those residents are played by an Endgame-worthy who's-who of past Jarmusch collaborators (Murray, Adam Driver, Tilda Swinton, Chloë Sevigny, Tom Waits, Steve Buscemi, RZA, Iggy Pop) and people you're surprised haven't worked with him before (Danny Glover, Caleb Landry Jones, Carol Kane). Murray, Driver, and Sevigny comprise the local police force, who quickly identify zombies as the cause of a few gruesome murders and start chopping off heads; the rest of the cast play zombies or zombies-in-waiting.

At the very least, the performers are all "game," insofar as they ably stone-face their way through a largely gag-less script, but there isn't much to say for them beyond that. Jarmusch leaves his actors hanging by frequently holding for long, silent pauses between lines of dialogue. One might guess that this was done to accommodate audience laughter, but it ultimately has the effect of making it seem like lines have been forgotten and other actors are improvising in order to fill the gap. It all contributes to a thrown-together feeling that does the finished product no favors.

What truly sinks the film, though, is Jarmusch's refusal to follow any individual thematic thread past the spit-balling stage. Is it a fourth-wall breaking deconstruction of zombie movie formula? Apart from two brief gags to that effect that bookend the film, apparently not. Is it an allegory for the rapid deterioration of a Trump-run nation? Hard to tell, beyond the "fracking > undead" plot and an unremarked-upon "Keep America White Again" (?) hat worn by one character who dies the same as everyone else. Is it an anti-capitalist screed, à la Dawn of the Dead? According to a late bit of voiceover positing that maybe the undead were already living their pre-undead lives like zombies, sure. This is despite the fact that the film barely develops this idea, and both repeats and explicitly articulates the primary gag from the far superior Shaun of the Dead, now 15 years old.

The most disappointing thing about The Dead Don't Die is that it feels like a regression after a recent turning point in Jarmusch's work. Only Lovers and Paterson found the director dropping much of the archness that had suffused his previous films, removing the distance between the viewer and his characters, and displaying something that approached actual warmth. The Dead Don't Die alternately feels like an excuse for Jarmusch to get his famous friends together to hang out (a documentary I would watch!) and like the Hullabalooza attendee on The Simpsons who doesn't even know if he's being sarcastic anymore. It isn't clear who exactly this is for or why it exists. (

Author rating: 3/10

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Average reader rating: 9/10


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