Jim Jarmusch’s new zom-com, The Dead Don’t Die, will probably draw immediate comparisons to his 2014 film, Only Lovers Left Alive. It shouldn’t, though, because that haunting, melancholy, vampire love story couldn’t possibly be more different than the irreverent zombie comedy Jarmusch has offered here. Where Only Lovers is moody and always as serious as a stake to the heart, The Dead Don’t Die uses a kind of madcappery one might expect from the Coens or Wes Anderson to convey that, for all its faults, the world is perfect, and life really is worth living. Except when it’s not.
Things are getting weird in Centreville, a small town of 700-something that, according to the sign at the city limits, is “A Nice Place To Live”. It sure seems that way, as we see that the tiny hamlet is kept in line with a police force of only three officers: Officer Ronnie (Adam Driver), Chief Cliff (Murray), and Officer Mindy (Chloe Sevigny). We also meet Hermit Bob (Tom Waits), a sometimes-narrator of the story who lives in the woods and subsists on foraged mushrooms and squirrel meat, and the racist, “Make America White Again” hat-clad Farmer Miller (Steve Buscemi) that no one in town likes, especially Cliff. There are about a dozen other characters here, including Zelda Winston (Tilda Swinton, in the film’s most inspired casting) as the samurai-sword-wielding town undertaker and Selena Gomez’s Zoe, the ringleader of a trio of hipsters from Cleveland that pass through the town.
— The Dead Don't Die (@thedeaddontdie) June 4, 2019
Because of polar fracking, we’re told from Posey Juarez’s (Rosie Perez) news reports in the background, the entire planet’s rotation is thrown off-kilter, causing animals to behave strangely, radios and cell phones to malfunction, and, of course, the dead to rise. Hermit Bob is the first to notice the unusual events, but he’s not exactly telling anyone. Our deadpan protagonists, Ronnie and Cliff, cruise around Centreville after the first attacks, musing about the outbreak with more of a mild annoyance than anything to be truly afraid of, at least at first. Meanwhile, Officer Mindy’s in a perpetual state of confusion and terror – natural reactions to a zombie outbreak – which provides a perfect vehicle for Sevigny’s scene-chewing.
It’s both weird and sweet to see a zombie film, of all things, providing a cross-section of Jarmusch’s career. The Dead Don’t Die is loaded with his collaborators, from Tilda Swinton to Bill Murray to Iggy Pop (who plays one of the stronger undead characters, not that a shambling, living corpse is a huge stretch for the aging rocker). It has the feeling of a studio-backed party for Jarmusch’s best pals, to which the audience is invited. Everyone’s having a great time, even if they’re being disemboweled, or “killing the head” of their closest friend.
Which is not to say that I can, or want to, excuse some of the film’s missteps. Whole characters are given several script pages of development and then are slain offscreen without much, or any, commentary. Buscemi’s Farmer Miller and Selena Gomez’s Zoe are underused, to say the least, and make up only two of several unfulfilled plot points in the film. These and other characters feel like they’re only present in the film to pad out the cast or provide an occasional ironic quip. Their scenes could be removed without changing the film all that much. Similarly, there’s a subplot with some escapees from a juvenile detention centre in town that never goes anywhere, despite some cues that their story might be important. All this adds up to The Dead Don’t Die feeling oddly unfinished, and it wraps up so hastily that you might wonder what happened to the missing reel.
The end of The Dead Don’t Die goes a little hard into preachy proselytizing about materialism and the environment from Tom Waits’s Hermit Bob that feels, in all ways, tacked-on. But, as with most things in the film, you’ll digest it on the strength of the actor’s delivery alone. What we’re left with is an oddly sophomoric outing for Jarmusch that coasts on the strength of his cast and his ability to craft big-picture tone, if not the most consistent script.
But when you fire up a Jarm, you’re probably not here for a cohesive, sensical plot. You want tone, some ironic meta-japery, and atmosphere, and The Dead Don’t Die delivers that in spades. It’s got all the madcap charm of a Coen Brothers movie, and might answer the question of “what if Burn After Reading, but with zombies?” The setting, Centreville, is the real star of the film, and the relationships between the townspeople, are imbued with such chemistry that, warts and all, The Dead Don’t Die is one of the most watchable films of the year, as long as you turn your brain off (kill the head), first.
The Dead Don’t Die will be released in theatres on June 14.