This is not the elegant, professional way to start a review, but I’ve got to do it. The way that a zombie’s head explodes in Jim Jarmusch’s The Dead Don’t Die…boy, that’s something. Why, before now, have I never seen a zombie movie where the zombie’s dried-out corpse body spews purple dust blood? Just clouds of misting blood all over the frame. I love it.
Anyway…I guess I’ve got a review to write.
Jim Jarmusch is an idiosyncratic filmmaker. His previous film, Paterson, was a quiet and reserved meditation on life and art. His follow up to that is…a zombie film? And it has the same idiosyncratic touches that only Jarmusch could pull off in a horror film.
To be frank, not everything is pulled off without a hitch. But what works with Jarmusch’s experiment in genre makes The Dead Don’t Die one of the most unique zombie films in recent memory. Oddly enough, it is unique while also being, on the surface, a generic zombie picture.
In the homey, rural town of Centerville, Pennsylvania, something is amiss. News reports explain that the Earth’s axis has shifted due to “polar fracking.” As a result, days are elongated, then nights are elongated. Natural disasters pick up speed around the world. Phones die, television sets flicker, and the dead at the Centerville cemetery rise from their graves.
A host of deadpan characters populate Centerville. Namely, the police chief Cliff Robertson (Bill Murray) and his partner Officer Ronnie Peterson (Adam Driver) are the center of the action. They glibly and distantly remark on the increasingly loony events in the small town, almost as if they expect these things to happen…
They are an effectively funny pair, more so than the other characters in the film. And the self-awareness that Jarmusch extends to them challenges the notions of self-awareness in horror. It is a clever twist, even if it isn’t fully explored.
And the same can be said for the film in general. Jarmusch explores the genre, poking fun at it without turning his nose to it, but to what end is ultimately left open-ended. The final monologue, which is the most detrimental piece of scripting in the entire film, claims zombies as a metaphor for specific social ailments. This is by no means a new development in the zombie genre, but in this case it is a judgment that comes out of left field and serves no over-arching purpose. It is almost as if Jarmusch gave up on the script in its final pages, throwing out a basic thematic concept to hinge his climax on.
While The Dead Don’t Die doesn’t have a coherent message to hang its hat on, it is nevertheless a mildly satisfying genre experience. A wink here, a nod there, the repeated reprise of the titular theme by Sturgill Simpson. It’s all fairly amusing. And how Jarmusch chooses to approach this subgenre is certainly noble. It is not a deconstruction, nor an homage, nor a derivative knockoff. It is its own vision of hell on earth.
That vision just so happens to be meandering and deliberate in the traditional Jarmusch way. Certain scenes, certain colloquialisms that are zoomed in on, and a brief brush-up against the city-country axis are uniquely framed. But the overall narrative slips away from Jarmusch. The climactic final face-off with death comes with a whimper. The resolution of character arcs are often curt and unsatisfying, even the one which is the most outlandish.
The vividly-realized town of Centerville has its quirks and charms, as does Jarmusch’s scripting of its townsfolk. But they are living in an unfinished story, a world with too much going on and not enough time to elaborate. Not that Jarmusch cares for elaboration. But I guess there is something to be said about someone who cares more about the detailed accoutrements in a movie nerd’s convenience store than a tightly-wrapped narrative.
In short, don’t expect 28 Days Later with this one.
The Dead Don’t Die: B-
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—Alex Brannan (@TheAlexBrannan)