Whether or not someone will like Jim Jarmsuch’s The Dead Don’t Die is predicated on whether or not they find deadpan reactions to zombies funny. The star-studded cast delivers nearly every line completely devoid of emotion. The joke is that the people of Centerville (Get it? They’re political centrists) are already zombies because of their political apathy. It would be much more incisive commentary if Shaun of the Dead hadn’t made the same joke fifteen years earlier. Nothing in The Dead Don’t Die is as funny or cutting as Nick Frost’s Ed frantically changing channels to get something more interesting than the news of the zombie uprising.
The Dead Don’t Die also takes aim at consumerism, having the zombies moan the one thing that they wanted most in life—“Coffee,” “Chardonnay,” “Free Cable” instead of “brains.” Ronnie (Adam Driver) helpfully points out “They gravitate toward things they did while they were alive,” which is echoing the line in Dawn of the Dead explaining why the zombies came to the mall: “Some kind of instinct. Memory of what they used to do. This was an important place in their lives.” The problem for The Dead Don’t Die is that Dawn of the Dead, like Shaun of the Dead, was funnier and more incisive.
There’s a string of meta jokes as well, mostly delivered by Ronnie. For example, when the theme song comes on the radio in the squad car, Cliff (Bill Murray) asks why he recognizes the song. Ronnie says it’s the theme song. Cliff doesn’t seem to know what’s going on, but Ronnie insists it’s the theme of the movie. It’s insufferable. Metacommentary works when it’s acknowledging that something is ridiculous or not working. Think of Tucker & Dale vs. Evil. It skewers all kinds of horror tropes, bringing brilliant new life to Tucker & Dale, who in a typical slasher would have been murderers or creeps giving out a warning then dying. To take aim at a movie for having the theme song play during the movie feels like a misunderstanding of the purpose of meta jokes.
The premise of The Dead Don’t Die has some originality at least. The zombie apocalypse, as explained by the news and a child’s monologue, has been caused by polar fracking throwing the Earth off its gravitational access. That doesn’t matter much to the characters, though. They’re preoccupied with fighting the zombie horde.
Jarmsuch, who wrote and directed the film, has six or seven distinct groups of characters squeezed into the hour and forty minutes of movie. The main set are Sheriff Cliff and his Deputies, Ronnie and Mindy (Chloë Sevigny). Farmer Frank Miller (Steve Buscemi) and Hank Thompson (Danny Glover) hang out in a diner, arguing politics. Frank’s real world counterparts are made painfully obvious with his red “Keep America White Again” hat. Zoe (Selena Gomez) leads a trio of hipsters from the gas station/Nerd hub Bobby (Caleb Landry Jones) owns to Danny’s (Larry Fessenden) roadside motel. Meanwhile, Scottish mortician Zelda (Tilda Swinton ) practices with samurai swords in front of a giant golden Buddha. There’s another trio of teens in Centerville’s Detention Center. If you’re having trouble keeping track of all these characters, congratulations. You’re feeling what it’s like to watch The Dead Don’t Die.
Almost everyone in the film is a huge name, and they all deliver lines with the same flat affect. Obviously it’s intentional, but it will leave viewers feeling flat as well. It’s hard to invest in someone who actively doesn’t care, whether it’s for the sake of the joke or not.
The lack of feeling kills the sense of dread too. Jarmsuch elects to use dialogue for most of the first hour to build the tension. People say things like, “Something weird is going on” and “I just got this creepy feeling,” but there’s no emotion behind it, and thus no emotion in the viewer. There’s also very little happening that the viewer can see to suggest the zombies are coming.
Despite all of that, The Dead Don’t Die isn’t without its merits. The script has some great lines (“Up your hole with a wooden pole,” “Bedtime for bozos”). The gore has its own twist, with zombies spraying a black powder instead of blood when wounded. It’s fun to shout out every celebrity as they parade on screen. It’s missing something though. I don’t profess to know what that something is, but this film feels like it’s one more ingredient away from being one of the all-time greats. But filmmaking isn’t horseshoes or hand grenades. Almost doesn’t count for much.
Wicked Rating 4/10
Director: Jim Jarmsuch
Writer: Jim Jarmsuch
Stars: Bill Murray, Adam Driver, Chloë Sevigny, Steve Buscemi, Danny Glover, Selena Gomez, Larry Fessenden, Tilda Swinton, Caleb Landry Jones
Release Date: 10 September 2019 (Blu-ray)
Length: 104 Minutes