The Dead Don’t Die review – yawn of the deadpan

Jim Jarmusch's tedious take on the zombie film makes a bloody - or is that dusty? - mess of the genre

The concept appears beyond reproach: Bill Murray and Adam Driver fighting hordes of the undead in a film by Jim Jarmusch, the same irreverent, laconic director who brought us quasi-western classic Dead Man. But not all films are made equal, and Dead Man this ain’t.

It feels necessary to state outright that The Dead Don’t Die is genuinely baffling. And not in the usual, interesting way that Jarmusch films are often baffling. This one, which concerns a rather conventional zombie outbreak in small-town America, feels entirely weightless. The pacing is languid. The comedy is so deadpan it’s hard to tell if it’s even there. It’s a movie with the air of a filmed rehearsal, as though constructed with stand-ins as a guide for the real actors to refer to later on so they know what to say or where to stand.

Bill Murray, Adam Driver, Chloe Sevigny, Tilda Swinton, Steve Buscemi, Danny Glover, Selena Gomez… the list goes on (and on and on, actually, in an opening credits sequence that seems boastful of its all-star cast to the point of parody). And yet Jarmusch has assembled this huge and impressive cast for a purpose that is entirely unclear. Those hoping Bill Murray’s sleepy police chief would – at the very least – make this a worthwhile trip are sure to be disappointed. The standout here is – and entirely possible to guess from the trailers – Tilda Swinton’s Scottish samurai, whose katana-based onslaught of the undead makes you wish they’d just made a film about her instead, a kind of Scot Dog: Way of the Samurai. But even she feels placed at random in a film that seems designed entirely at random. For some reason the director is dead-set on focusing on the least interesting parts of a zombie invasion. New characters turn up in lengthy, ponderous introductions and are killed, off-screen, without any explanation as to their narrative purpose. If the point is that they never had any purpose to begin with, so what? Whose idea of fun is that?

Worst of all, perhaps, a zombie doesn’t appear until way past the 30 minutes mark, and even then it’s only a brief encounter (though it is, thankfully, Iggy Pop). More time passes. The film stalls. Fine, had the ensuing scenes been funny, or witty, or had something to say. And what is this film saying, exactly? Jarmusch appears to be making a point about consumerism that George A. Romero made far more cleverly in 1978 when he set his zombie masterpiece, Dawn of the Dead, inside a shopping mall. There are occasional pot-shots at Trump. Some references to fracking as a potential world-ender. None of it really lands. Then come the jarring meta moments, in which Murray and Driver reveal themselves to be drily aware of their existence in a film. Far from funny, these asides serve no identifiable purpose. The film drags worse than a zombie with one of its legs snapped at the ankle.

There is a small amount of pleasure to be derived from the zombie-killing scenes, who –  in one of the film’s few neat genre subversions – exist here as dust-based entities instead of the usual blood-filled corpses. Adam Driver also occasionally lands a line that results in a chuckle (the way he says “ghouls” is admittedly priceless). But a zombie flick from a filmmaker of this caliber should have amounted to more. It feels wrong to wish that a man whose entire career has hinged on his making films in the vein of the unexpected should have aimed for something more conventional. But here I am, wishing exactly that.


By: Tom Barnard

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