The Dead Don’t Die Doesn’t End Well

Movie review: The Dead Don’t Die

Jim Jarmusch’s send-up of horror tropes feels like a basic lesson in what zombie movies symbolize — a cultural descent into empty consumerism and brain-devouring distractions — but little more.

The Dead Don’t Die

2.5/5

Starring: Bill Murray, Adam Driver, Tom Waits, Tilda Swinton, Selena Gomez, Chloe Sevingny, Steve Buscemi, Danny Glover, Carol Kane, Iggy Pop

Directed by: Jim Jarmusch

Running time: 1 hr 44 mins

Rating: Restricted

Opens select markets June 14, 2019

By Katherine Monk

“This isn’t going to end well.” It’s a running joke delivered by Adam Driver throughout the denouement of The Dead Don’t Die, but it’s also prophecy. Jim Jarmusch’s latest film doesn’t end well at all. In fact, the white-haired hipster has created something close to a painfully self-aware groaner that stumbles in a semi-conscious daze from start to finish.

Fortunately for Jarmusch fans, The Dead Don’t Die is a zombie movie — which means much of the moribund meandering is just part of the genre. And a tedious part of the genre at that, because once you’ve seen a person chew a finger off a hand, or suck an eyeball from a socket, or chow down on an abdomen, the shock value of cannibalism is lost. Only the gross-out factor remains, which is — let’s face it — a rather cheap and tawdry titillation.

Jim Jarmusch’s latest film doesn’t end well at all. In fact, the white-haired hipster has created something close to a painfully self-aware groaner that stumbles in a semi-conscious daze from start to finish.

Yet, that’s what this collection of goofy characters and car culture barbs finally adds up to, because after creating self-conscious art films with outsider characters that accessed the alternative Zeitgeist for the past 30 years, Jarmusch is now writing films that satirize his original work — as though the director decided to eat his own catalogue, and reanimate it without a soul.

Maybe that was the intention — a strange ironic twist on the sequel phenomenon. Maybe this story of a small town that finds itself besieged by the walking dead as a result of “polar fracking” is really just a whole statement on our desire to see the same things over and over again, reanimated with less life force, and more malicious intent.

Maybe the zombie format was just a simple and fun way to poke fun at the breakdown of interpersonal communication in the United States, and our visual addiction to screens. Certainly, the movie wastes no time drawing comparisons between zombies and people who stare into their phones every spare second — at one point showing zombies desperately pressing buttons and looking for bars in a dead man’s march.

… After creating self-conscious art films with outsider characters that accessed the alternative Zeitgeist for the past 30 years, Jarmusch is now writing films that satirize his original work — as though the director decided to eat his own catalogue, and reanimate it without a soul.

“Zombies are attracted to the things they did when they were alive,” says one zombie expert, trying to explain why a group of uniformed zombies are attempting a game of baseball — badly, since arms have a tendency of falling off after a few days six feet under.

Obviously, Jarmusch is playing this all for humour — in his unique Jim Jarmusch way — by suggesting there’s something deeper, more meaningful and more intellectually gratifying than the mere send-up of a familiar movie genre. He’s teasing us into believing The Dead Don’t Die will give us food for thought, instead of just showing brains as food.

He pulls it off by keeping his characters a step back from the action — allowing them to observe the strange events as they unfold while offering deadpan commentary and the odd, irony-laced declaration such as “This isn’t going to end well.”

He’s teasing us into believing The Dead Don’t Die will give us food for thought, instead of just showing brains as food.

Because it’s Adam Driver who keeps foreshadowing the final scenes, the running joke has the perfect vehicle. Driver is one of the few actors in Hollywood outside Samuel L. Jackson who can do self-reference without looking like an egotistical jackass. So even when he serves us a fourth-wall destroying line like “Jim let me read the whole script…,” we don’t hate him. But we can still hate the line, because after surrendering our disbelief for the better part of an hour, telling us we’re being played as suckers doesn’t sit well.

Driver is one of the few actors in Hollywood outside Samuel L. Jackson who can do self-reference without looking like an egotistical jackass. So even when he serves us a fourth-wall destroying line like “Jim let me read the whole script…,” we don’t hate him.

Adam Driver

Adam Driver at the opening night of the Dead Don’t Die in Cannes. Courtesy of Getty Images.

One minute, Jarmusch tries to suck up to the audience by nodding to all the genre traits he’s carefully sewn into the mix — especially George A. Romero allusions, most notably the inclusion of a 1960s-era Pontiac LeMans (seen in the infamous Night of the Living Dead) driven by Selena Gomez and her “hipster friends from Cleveland.” The next minute, he’s climbing out of the B-movie bin by opting out of the plot, and going all “meta.”

It’s not the first time a smart director has tried to justify a stupid and irritating concept by telling us the stupidity and irritation is all “on purpose” — that it’s all commentary on the world we live in and the easy entertainments we crave.

The Dead Don’t Die feels like a basic lesson in what zombie movies symbolize — a cultural descent into empty consumerism and brain-devouring distractions. Translate that idea to a small American town called “Centreville,” where residents no longer listen to each other and grow more polarized all the time, and you can see why Jarmusch wanted to make a zombie movie in the midst of the Trump Presidency.

The Dead Don’t Die feels like a basic lesson in what zombie movies symbolize — a cultural descent into empty consumerism and brain-devouring distractions.

How else to articulate the horror of watching your nation fall apart, limb by limb, grey cell by grey cell? The ambient silliness of the whole exercise makes it watchable — even when the fleshy sound effects and realistic body mastication grow tired. There is pleasure in watching Bill Murray, Adam Driver and Chloe Sevigny play small town cops — driving around in Smart Cars and a Prius while the “hipsters from Cleveland” tear up the town in their LeMans.

There is pleasure in watching Tilda Swinton play a Scottish undertaker/ Samurai swordswoman who slices through zombies like a Vitamix through celery. There is pleasure in watching Bill Murray be, well, Bill Murray. And there is pleasure in watching a smart person try to make the most from a brainless premise — which Jarmusch is desperate to do, in a very real way.

Yet, no matter how many intellectual references he includes, no matter how many cool actors he conscripts for the task, and no matter how often he refers to himself with a wink via the somewhat disappointing hermit played by Tom Waits, Jarmusch never succeeds at making The Dead Don’t Die more than a zombie movie.

It’s basically an homage to the form — which consumes brains as a matter of course — but often makes up for it with an extra helping of heart.

@katherinemonk

THE EX-PRESS, June 14, 2019

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