'The Dead Don't Die' film review: Jarmusch's zombie flick should have stayed dead
The one-sheet poster and trailer loudly proclaim "The Dead Don't Die" (opening in theaters June 14) as having the "greatest zombie cast ever." Well, this is technically true - in as much as the names on the posters are remarkable ... but nothing else about the latest Jim Jarmusch film is approaches great or even inspired.
Jim Jarmusch - the director behind the critically-acclaimed, low-key dramas "Broken Flowers" and "Paterson" - made a zombie movie. And it features some top-tier talent. And apparently someone thought just putting a talented platoon of actors in front of the idiosyncratic filmmaker would magically and spontaneously manifest in a winning little offbeat comedy. This certainly not the case.
It's impossible to impress or emphasize this point too much: almost nothing of note happens in this film. It's a small town populated by some mildly quirky characters. Something about a vague global event (that remains completely in the background) - and suddenly zombies start popping out of the ground. Zombie attack. People die. And that's about it.
Jarmusch films have a cadence unique to his works. In this regard, "The Dead" is (if nothing else) a signature Jarmusch film. The problem is not any lack of action or violence - it's that even faintly intriguing story ideas are sort of introduced, then abandoned completely. And as the film lumbers to the finish line, "The Dead" takes increasingly eccentric turns, in a desperate bid to distract from the obvious fact that very little to nothing, on any thematic or character or story level, is progressing at all.
"The Dead" flirts with some political and social commentary, but even these are passionless, half-assed ideas that are either dropped or forgotten completely. The global disaster is transparently akin to climate change and government denial. The concept of the undead rising, only to return to the monotony of tedious habits, at least is the kernel of something approaching George Romero's take on consumerism. But these ideas are dropped unceremoniously or just forgotten entirely - it's honestly hard to tell.
Then there's the cast of one-dimensional characters. The town "asshole" is an "asshole" ... and it's crudely telegraphed to the audience that the cantankerous farmer is indeed an "asshole" because he's wearing a "Keep America White Again" hat. That's just lazy. The young kids traveling through town are deemed "hipsters" and that's about the full extend of their character development. Several characters played by actors featured prominently on the poster have screen time that can be measured in dozens of seconds.
Even characters with some modest about of screen time are barely characters of any depth or dimension at all. Danny Glover is just a guy who owns a store. Caleb Landry Jones is a mousey nerd. Tilda Swinton gets to have the most obvious fun with her role - a katana-wielding Buddhist mortician who just amounts to "town weirdo." There's three kids from a juvenile detention center who never interact with any of the other main characters before the film just forgets about them.
As if all of that wasn't frustrating enough - Jarmusch not only stalls the plot out, he spends entirely too much time repeating gags over and over and over. It's not enough to watch Murray react to a crime scene, the film then stops and follows Driver's character arrive and react (adding nothing new, aside from a quick little amusing line). Oh, then Sevigny arrives at the crime scene - and of course she has to walk in and react. Driver's laid back officer has some odd meta humor -- but he has one prediction about who events will turn out ... and he repeats it over and over. The cherry on top is hearing the movie's theme song again ... and again ... and again. Each of these bits is only sort of amusing to begin with - and they don't get funnier the fourth or fifth time they're forced down the audience's throat.
Final verdict: The occasional soft chuckle from the few-and-far between amusing moments keeps this lazy slog from being an outright and abject failure. The "greatest zombie cast ever" is wasted on a pile of repetitive gags and a half-baked premise.
"The Dead Don't Die" screened during the 45th Seattle International Film Festival and opens in theaters nationwide June 14. This horror comedy has a running time of 105 minutes and is rated R for zombie violence/gore, and for language.