There's a sort of melancholy optimism at the foundation of eccentric auteur extraordinaire Jim Jarmusch's latest cinematic creation The Dead Don't Die, a film that likely exists as one of the filmmaker's most accessible works yet a relatively minor effort when compared to its Oscar buzzy predecessor Paterson. While some would likely accuse Jarmusch of being quirky for quirky's sake, any true fan of Jarmusch's work could likely write a thesis on why such a claim is absurd at best.
The Dead Don't Die actually says a lot for a film that is narratively loose and positions itself squarely on the comedic end of the indie/B-movie horror spectrum. While the film isn't likely to get compared to Shaun of the Dead anytime soon, The Dead Don't Die is unabashedly Jarmusch and those who know what that means and embrace it are very likely to embrace this film in all its deadpan, slightly demented glory.
The film takes place in the sleepy town of Centerville, PA, a declining town of 738 (737...736...735...and so on) with one diner, a motel, and a freakin' huge cemetery. The three-person police force includes chief of police Cliff Robertson (Bill Murray) and deputies Ronnie (Adam Driver) and Mindy (Chloe Sevigny). The townsfolk include Tilda Swinton's scene-stealing mortuary owner Zelda Winston, Steve Buscemi's racist Farmer Miller and his token black friend Hank (Danny Glover), the geeky Bobby (Caleb Landry Jones), Tom Waits's hermit-like Bob, and a trio of hipsters led by Selena Gomez among others.
If you haven't figured it out by now, The Dead Don't Die is a zombie flick, a peculiar little wonder that really doesn't have much of a narratively structured story yet one that also held my attention for a good majority of its slightly long 105-minute running time.
The problem here in Centerville is that the Earth has been knocked off its axis by something called "polar fracking," essentially meaning that the sun doesn't really set and wireless reception is sporadic at best. When the zombies start to rise, led with Stooge-like wonder by Iggy Pop, we know that we're in for a night of bullets, brains, blades, and coffee.
C'mon. This is a Jarmusch film.
There are some delicious cameos here, though they're best experienced live and won't be mentioned here. Suffice it to say that Tilda Swinton does steal the show every single time she's on the big screen, as usual, while Bill Murray succeeds in being Cliff Robertson as Bill Murray. Adam Driver, who was so magnificent in Paterson, is entirely different here yet just as marvelous.
By now, Jarmusch has mastered the art of casting an ensemble that truly gets his unique artistic voice. This entire ensemble buys into his vision and they pull it off beautifully even when the humor doesn't always quite land.
Has there ever been a Jarmusch film where all the humor always landed?
Truthfully, who cares?
It's a Jarmusch film. That's enough.
The Dead Don't Die isn't quite gory enough to please the usual zombie gorehounds, though it's unquestionably gorier than the rest of Jarmusch's films combined. It's also, it's fair to say, not likely to be considered eccentric enough for Jarmusch's usual devotees.
Truthfully, it's hard to figure out who the film was made for other than Jarmusch.
Again, that's likely enough.
The Dead Don't Die is almost absurdist enough that you can't help but wonder if Samuel Beckett did a rewrite.
He didn't. This is all Jarmusch.
It's hard to believe that Jarmusch has been making films for right around 40 years, subsequently becoming a brand unto himself with a style that weaves together supreme coolness with an intellectual core and a detached, often well hidden compassion for his always unique and always compelling ensembles. The truth is this is a film that only Jarmusch could make - if anyone else made it, it would still be called a Jarmusch film.
As is often true for Jarmusch films, the absurdity here is almost tranquil in nature. Jarmusch has never really been one to rush things, often preferring the sparse dialogue of his stories and the little quirks of his characters to have their time to do a slow boil to the surface. The same is very much true here - Both Murray and Driver are somewhat dialed down here from their usual shticks, though it's a dial down that works for the benefit of the characters and this film.
For a zombie film that's in many ways tranquil, there's an improvisational spirit at play here that makes many of the scenes that unfold feel naturalistic and spontaneous. The film suffers a bit as it moves forward, Jarmusch's self-aware tendencies occasionally getting the best of him and his overly explicit influences being just a bit too in-your-face.
At times, the obviousness of it all becomes distracting.
These are truly minor quibbles, however, for a film that ultimately satisfies and entertains with more chuckles than outright laughs and more than enough of the Jarmusch aura to please just about any true Jarmusch fan. Will The Dead Don't Die win Jarmusch a legion of new fans? Probably not. However, anyone who devours every zombie flick out there will likely have at least a modest appreciation for what Jarmusch accomplishes here.
The Dead Don't Die isn't the best of Jarmusch and the only buzzing he'll likely be hearing this year will be that sound of zombie crickets off in the distance.
I suppose one of them could be named Oscar.
The Dead Don't Die may be a relatively minor work of wonder for Jarmusch, but a relatively minor Jarmusch film is still vastly superior to a good majority of the films out there.
Skip yet another Men in Black film this weekend. Eat some brains instead.
Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic