Very few film genres have become as thoroughly rotten to the core over the years as the zombie movie. It’s not hard to discern why- George Romero’s iconic introduction to the flesh-eating monsters in Night of the Living Dead was released over 50 years ago, and the entertainment industry has enthusiastically eaten it alive ever since. From Dawn of the Dead to Shaun of the Dead, there isn’t much we haven’t seen a zombie do past 2002’s revisionist 28 Days Later. Though Jim Jarmusch‘s new zombie comedy The Dead Don’t Die accepts such a truth early on as the punchline to its every joke, it can’t help but suffer from the law of diminishing returns placed upon it by its genre’s saturation. Held up almost entirely by the charisma of its cast and its utter disregard for the fourth wall, The Dead Don’t Die nevertheless fails to be much more than an eye-rolling exercise in mild amusement.
As a follow-up to Jarmusch’s profoundly understated Paterson, The Dead Don’t Die is an odd misstep away from the auteur’s subtler sensibilities in favor of total bluntness. We open in the town of Centerville, USA, a “very nice place” if we’re to believe its quaint welcoming sign and uninspired scenery. Bill Murray and Adam Driver play our two central characters in the film’s overstuffed cast, Chief Cliff Robertson and Officer Ronnie Peterson, respectively, and we meet them as they’re investigating the suspected theft of some local poultry. After a bizarre encounter with the local crazy, Hermit Bob (a deranged but obnoxiously unnecessary Tom Waits), the pair begins to think something strange is going on, a suspicion that’s confirmed when two people wind up torn to pieces in the town’s diner.
The Dead Don’t Die is at its most enjoyable in these first forty minutes, which mostly follow Cliff and Ronnie (occasionally assisted by Chloë Sevigny playing their timid fellow officer) around as they meet the various eccentric characters of Centerville. There’s Bobby Wiggins, a gas station/comic book store owner played by a bumbling Caleb Landry Jones, existing somewhere in between his Get Out and Three Billboards roles. Steve Buscemi and Danny Glover verbally spar in the Centerville diner, the former a Trump-supporting caricature who wears a “Keep America White Again” hat and complains about his coffee being too black. The strangest of the bunch is Zelda Winston (Tilda Swinton), the town’s reclusive katana-wielding mortician with propensities for addressing people by their full name, walking in curiously geometric paths, and dressing up her deceased clientele with make-up.
But Adam Driver and Bill Murray are easily the most enjoyable of the film’s overstuffed cast, probably because they’re playing themselves more than real characters. Driver is especially brilliant- it’s obviously nowhere near his nuanced portrait of masculinity in Paterson (again, he’s practically playing himself), but it’s still one of his strongest and most confident performances yet. Every line of his dialogue is delivered with equal doses of self-consciousness and deadpan alike; Ronnie knows he’s in a zombie movie, and he makes sure to consistently remind the audience (and his partner) of his omniscient knowledge with a chorus of “this is going to end badly”. Every actor looks one cut away from erupting into laughter, and one of the film’s most endearing qualities is the sense that its cast is more a group of friends hanging out than people working.
If Shaun of the Dead earned its laughs through the obliviousness of its characters towards the rise of the undead, then The Dead Don’t Die presents the inverse as its extended joke. Every character in Jarmusch’s film has an understanding that they’re in a horror movie (but especially Adam Driver, who according to the film’s late fourth wall-break was the only one given the whole script). When people start showing up eaten alive, zombies are the first conclusion the police officers collectively arrive at, second only to a wild animal (or maybe “several wild animals”). The obviousness to the film is its lifeline and shield against becoming a total failure, even if it is a bit of a lazy step in the wrong direction for Jarmusch. The matter-of-fact brusqueness with which the characters contextualize themselves within the film to the audience is admittedly quite amusing, and Jarmusch only earns more laughs the more crude and explicitly daring he decides to become.
Even with its pleasurable cast and dry humor, there’s a tiresome burden of political anger running through the veins of The Dead Don’t Die, one that never gets fleshed out enough to be remotely compelling. The political jabs within the film, predominately at Trump and the symbiotic relationship between the oil industry and environmental regulatory bodies, feel out of tune to the characteristic nonchalance of Jarmusch’s narrative inclinations. Perhaps the film’s slight political awareness was intended to give a fresh coat of anachronistic paint to its tried-and-true zombie narrative, but the unoriginality of the outcome suggests that such references were superfluous appendages that probably should have been severed in the writing room.
The Dead Don’t Die conclusively fizzles out not because it is a particularly poor film, but because it has nothing new to add to the zombie genre nor Jarmusch’s already rich filmography. The fact that it is directly preceded by such a masterpiece as Paterson certainly doesn’t help, nor does its release past the recent prime of our cultural fixation on the living dead. Though it may have been conceived as the first ‘post-zombie’ film, The Dead Don’t Die sadly lacks the pulse to overcome the fatigue most of us feel by now towards the tropes and scenarios it lampoons.