Review originally posted this past May at Cannes Film Festival
After going for depth and gravity with his last two triumphs, “Only Lovers Left Alive” and “Paterson,” writer-director Jim Jarmusch stumbles with his latest, the slight zombie comedy, “The Dead Don’t Die.”
This rural-America-set zombie statement has shades of George A Romero; hell, the Zombie godfather is even mentioned a few times in the script. The film also has Jarmusch’s usual dry, droll and deadpan-infused humor as an added bonus. The result is uneven, at best, and crushingly disappointing, at worst. The self-aware cool that Jarmusch brought to many of his best movies feels rather unearned here, as Bill Murray, Adam Driver and Chloë Sevigny play cops in the fictional US town of Centerville. Murray’s Cliff is the chief, and Driver’s Ronnie his up-and-coming protege. Sevigny is relegated to the rather clichéd trope of the scared and unassuming female, but she comes off as giving the more interesting performance of the trio.
Of course, this isn’t a conventional movie by any stretch of the imagination, not when you have characters such as local hobo Hermit Bob (Tom Waits, having a blast) and MAGA-wearing Farmer Miller (Steve Buscemi) rounding out the main cast. Jarmusch regular Iggy Pop also shows up as a zombie — unsurprisingly, he looks just about the same as he does in real life, which got a chuckle from the crowd at this evening’s DeBussy premiere.
The zombies do eventually come into the picture, as our three main protagonists seek the help of the mysterious Zelda (Tilda Swinton), a new resident of Centerville. Straight outta the mean streets of Scotland, Zelda seems to have a curious affinity for the dead. It’s no wonder, then, that Zelda is the new proprietor of the local funeral home — but her, err, passion for the dead isn’t why Ronnie, Mindy and Cliff need her assistance in this zombie apocalypse happening before our very eyes on-screen. No, you see, Zelda can swing a lean and mean samurai sword, and it’s in these moments that Swinton starts to take matters into her own hands, that the film hits its highest of notes. In fact, Jarmusch should have built the whole film around her character instead of the two wimpy male leads we get.
If the scenes between Driver and Murray are unassertive and rather too on-the-nose for their own good, “The Dead Don’t Die” is happily elevated by the female characters, most notably Zelda and Mindy. Their characters feel a little more fleshed out and interesting. There’s a likability to them that seems to be lacking with the other characters in the film. It could just be that the two actresses playing these characters seem more invested in their respective roles than their male counterparts, who do come off as uninspired by the lethargic nature of their characters. I would blame Jim Jarmusch’s haphazardly lazy screenplay for the latter.
Lazy does seem to be the right word when describing “The Dead Don’t Die,” as it very occasionally feels like an unfinished work by Jarmusch; the ideas may have looked good on paper, but the lack of coherence becomes too problematic to brush off. One has to think that after continuously churning out these moody and existential arthouse statements for the better part of 30 years, Jarmusch just wanted to unwind and have fun in making “The Dead Don’t Die,” which is understandable. In that regard, it does look like the cast and crew had a blast making this picture. And yet, it still feels like a missed opportunity, one in which its socio-political messaging gets buried under the misguided effort to make a zombie movie by, whether Jarmusch realizes it or not, adhering to the conventional tropes that come with the genre.
Of note, the pop-filled photography of Frederick Elmes camera is gorgeous. [C]