Jarmusch is bringing his signature style and a seriously stacked cast — including Bill Murray, Chloë Sevigny, Adam Driver, Tom Waits, Steve Buscemi, Tilda Swinton, Selena Gomez, RZA, Iggy Pop and more — to a distinctly 2019 take on a Romeo-esque zombie film. Does the combination work, or it a mash-up that won't mesh? Here's what critics think:
It Follows A Sprawling Cast Of Characters Dealing With The Zombie Apocalypse In Small Town America
Chief cop Cliff Robertson (a pricelessly unfazed Murray) and Officer Ronnie Peterson (Driver making stoner art out of dazed and confused ) banter amiably in their squad car and check in with their partner, Officer Mindy Morrison (Sevigny), back at Centerville HQ. Their wake-up call happens when the globe takes a spin on its axis, night never falls and in a forever daylight — hauntingly captured by DP Frederick Elmes — the dead rise from the cemetery demanding what they wanted most in life: coffee, WiFi and "especially chardonnay."
Each of the large ensemble cast are a small component of a whole that is Centerville. From the "Make America White Again" hat sporting farmer that no one likes (Steve Buscemi), to the eccentric guy Bob that lives in the woods (Tom Waits who doubles as our narrator), the shy comic collector gas store clerk Bobby (Caleb Landy Jones), the plucky motel owner (Larry Fessenden), and sweet hardware store owner Hank (Danny Glover), we get glimpses into their feuds, idiosyncrasies, and inane unhurried conversations[…] Then there's Tilda Swinton who ups the ante on the absurd as the bizarre Scottish mortician with a talent for katana wielding.
The Message Of 'The Dead Don't Die' Is As Unsubtle, If Not More So, Than That Of 'Dawn Of The Dead'…
In the best Romero tradition, the jokey explanations of what precipitated the apocalypse are open-ended metaphors for real fears, American and global. The world got knocked off its axis by something called "polar fracking," which seems like Monty Python-eseque word salad until you hear representatives of the polar fracking industry going on the news and baldly denying that the process is bad for nature.
There's a tinge of melancholy to almost everything Jarmusch has ever made, and The Dead Don't Die is perhaps his most hopeless. It's not devoid of warmth or tenderness, but it takes its take on the end of the world seriously. The world is ending. People die. That's that. That pervading aura of nihilism has a depressive effect, particularly in combination with Jarmusch's penchant for slow burn; what is the point of fighting the tide if we're doomed no matter what?
… And In That Vein, It's Very Pessimistic And Doesn't Build Towards Any Themes You Haven't Seen Before
Any great zombie movie doubles as a piece of social commentary, and yet Jarmusch's droll parable about the end times seems to predict that humanity will greet the apocalypse with little more than a baffled shrug.
You start to think Jarmusch has something suitable and unique planned, and that anticipation makes all the low-key plot unfolding increasingly intriguing[…] However, when all is said and done, none of that means anything. The Dead Don't Die ultimately reveals itself to be a zombie film that's almost exactly like every other zombie film. It's a metaphor for humanity. A film where zombies are there to provide commentary on the nature of capitalism, greed, and consumerism. Even those standout oddball scenes in the third act don't feel quite as funny or weird when you realize they're thematically pointless.
Bill Murray And Adam Driver Give Astoundingly Dry Performances, Which Has Its Pros And Cons
Murray and Driver fill the margins with toned-down versions of Murray and Driver performances, Murray all hangdog wariness and Driver constitutionally unserious while somehow determinedly playing it straight. So it goes for the rest of the ensemble: Given outlines to work with, they're free to banter and breathe life into their parts as they see fit while ambling through Jarmusch's easygoing sense of direction.
Everything is driven by Murray and Driver, though, who curiously both turn in what appear to be intentionally apathetic performances. Each is as dry as dry can be—which, at times, can lead to some huge laughs. (I'm still chuckling at the mere thought of Driver's character pulling up to a crime scene in a tiny Smart car.) But having dry main characters also drags the film down considerably.
Of The Supporting Cast, Tilda Swinton And Tom Waits Get The Best Scene (Or They At Least Make The Most Of Theirs)
I was charmed by the banter between Danny Glover and Caleb Landry Jones as shopkeepers who bar themselves in a hardware store, and by Tilda Swinton's performance as a samurai-sword-toting Scottish mortician. I was less intrigued by Steve Buscemi as a Donald Trump supporter wearing a red hat and wielding a shotgun, and by Selena Gomez as a hipster from Cleveland in search of a fun night on the town. Jarmusch's script ping-pongs from location to location, character to character, but viewers are never given a reason to care about any of them.
Not quite last — and far from least — is Zelda Wintson, Centerville's new mortician. A mysterious Scottish immigrant with an affinity for samurai swords and some very unusual taste in postmortem makeup design, Zelda is obviously played by Tilda Swinton, and her delightful performance shoots the movie full of fresh embalming fluid every time it starts to rot.
Of the lot, though, it's Tom Waits as the forest-dwelling outsider, Hermit Bob, who leaves the strongest impression and has the most to draw from here… which isn't saying much, sadly. Indeed, for a movie with such a unique ensemble, it's frustrating how little The Dead Don't Die actually offers them, when it comes to interesting material or things to do.
It'd Be One Thing If The Movie Was Just A Little Too-Cool To Take The Zombie Movie Thing Seriously…
If Jarmusch's latest often feels as though it lacks a pulse, this star-studded parable is held together by one consistent truth: When Hell is full, the dead will walk the Earth. And when the Earth is fucked, the living will do whatever they can to sleepwalk through the nightmare.
The premise of "The Dead Don't Die" is as basic as it gets. Watching it is, I would imagine, a bit like watching a world-class chef make a grilled cheese sandwich. There's only so much you can do with this specific dish, but it's still fun to watch a master slice the cheese and blood-red tomatoes, every move as graceful as Zelda's.
I get that Jarmusch's unbothered approach to all this celebrity—his daring to treat stars so cavalierly—is sort of the whole cool point. But there are, I think, big enough ideas happening in The Dead Don't Die that the film could have benefited from some more character.
… But Jarmusch's Approach Results In A Film That Just Drags On Too Long, Even At Under Two Hours Long
The shambling, tossed-off quality of The Dead Don't Die is its most appealing trait. But that's all it has besides the performances. The plot is so loosey-gooesy it can barely stand on its own. Country singer Sturgill Simpson, who sings the film's catchy title song, shows up as a zombie on guitar. No reason. Jarmusch is so laidback at inserting whatever amuses him into the mix that The Dead Don't Die fails to build up any momentum. The movie just ends, as if Jarmusch ran out of money or a reason to go on. If there exists such a thing as an apocalyptic afterthought, The Dead Don't Die is it.
A 100-minute runtime feels considerably longer with characters who don't seem to be in a hurry to get anywhere, and Jarmusch has no rush for them to. When it comes to a contemporary take on classic movie monsters Jarmusch did a far better job with his vampire rock music drama Only Lovers Left Alive.
At first, it's humorous. But there's no real plot and the pace keeps its consistent slow drawl throughout, making this zombie comedy crawl ever leisurely toward the end credits. The same type of jokes and references only go so far after a while, and when characters begin breaking the fourth wall it tends to elicit groans more than guffaws.
There's an admitted pleasure to watching Jarmusch work even at his worst, and in fairness, The Dead Don't Die's excesses don't stop it from being funny. Still, it's a shock to find that Jarmusch's worst is this bad.
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