Warning: this review contains spoilers.
Earlier this month, I watched the latest Jim Jarmusch movie, the amiable, albeit unsuccessful zombie flick The Dead Don’t Die. I’ve wanted to see it for a while. I mean, Bill Murray in another zombie movie? Hell, yeah. The movie, however, isn’t as fun as it could have been.
First, I will admit I don’t frequent theatres. It’s a special treat when my wife and I go. I was a little dismayed by the fact that it cost $12 per ticket. While this may be cheaper than tickets in other metro areas, the $24 entrance fee seemed, I dunno, kinda un-Jim Jarmuschy.
Only about a half dozen people were in the audience. I was probably the oldest dude there. I have hipsterish tendencies (a decent vinyl collection, a coffee addiction, no issues paying $6 for an IPA), but I am not well versed in the world of Mr. Jarmusch, the king of New York indie. My exposure to his films is limited to the erratic, sometimes brilliant black and white chat-fest Coffee and Cigarettes and the intriguing Bill Murray vehicle Broken Flowers. Jarmusch is also a pretty good actor. He had a cameo in Sling Blade and Bored to Death (which might as well have been Jarmusch’s show but wasn’t).
I had two major problems with The Dead Don’t Die. The first was its pacing. I’ve seen enough Jarmusch to know that he has a pre-internet view of the world. A black and white movie about people talking over coffee and cigarettes? That’s so 20th century! A friend of mine once joked that you need a master’s degree to enjoy a Jarmusch movie. Whomever might be watching Mr. Jarmusch, his films have a white collar, low-fi, self-conscious style. Jarmusch doesn’t want to go for the truly grotesque the way Tarantino does. He’s too laid back for that. And that’s fine if you’re making a movie about brooding Brooklynites. It’s not so good when you’re up to your elbows in bloody entrails. In The Dead Don’t Die, it took at least a half an hour for the zombies to start eating people. In the age of The Walking Dead, it was too long to wait.
My other major problem with the film is that Jarmusch doesn’t bring anything new to the zombie genre. Really, genre movies aren’t his thing. And given that Bill Murray (albeit in a cameo) was in one of the best horror-comedies of all time, the wonderful Zombieland, my expectations for another Murray zombie movie were high. I stopped watching The Walking Dead years ago. Maybe it’s time for Hollywood to move on from the subject of the undead.
Sill, I’m glad I saw The Dead Don’t Die. The cast is big and likable. Murray and Adam Driver have an easy chemistry. I always enjoy seeing Cloe Sevigny. Just watching her try to look comfortable holding a shotgun was funny. Steve Buscemi, Danny Glover, Iggy Pop, and Tom Waits also do their part.
Selena Gomez walks around like she might take her clothes off at any moment, but doesn’t. Instead, Adam Driver ends up decapitating her and holding her head by the hair while he finishes a conversation. The scene is played for laughs. Remember this particular movie moment the next time you hear someone complain at a cocktail party that porn is anti-woman.
For the most part, The Dead Don’t Die has too many half-baked ideas and not much momentum. Jarmusch has loads of talented actors to work with, but mostly they spend the movie having awkward conversations. Tilda Swinton is given a fairly meaty role, but her otherworldly character is never really explained. In the film’s most disappointing moment, Jarmusch writes her out of the script with a literal deus ex machina, right around the time when she could have kicked some major ass and saved the day. Jarmusch opts for an unhappy ending. That’s fine. But I feel like we get enough nihilism from the Republican Party. How about a little relief, Jim?
Jarmusch provides some obvious social commentary about global warming, MAGA nuts, and consumer culture. But George Romero was doing the social commentary bit in Dawn of the Dead back in the 1970s. Even so, JJ might’ve have done more. Maybe the film needed a Jordan Peele behind the camera.
This may be a pet peeve, but I usually hate when movies break the fourth wall. If Jimbo’s going to be self-referential, I’d rather he be more subtle about it. I know I’m watching a movie, but at least Jarmusch could allow me to suspend my disbelief. Or, maybe make the entire movie a comment about Jim Jarmusch and the preciousness of hipster culture, rather than just provide the occasional aside about us watching another Jarmusch movie. Hell, set the movie at a post-apocalyptic Brooklyn microbrew (imagine a sweaty Zack G. pissed that the beer taps are running dry even as zombies are tearing down the doors). Instead, in The Dead Don’t Die, we get a small town with a gas station and diner and police station I’ve seen in a million other movies.
I know, I know: review the movie that was made, not the movie that wasn’t. The reality is, though, that the zombie apocalypse is a well-worn cinematic troupe, and Jarmusch has made a zombie flick without much suspense and too little humor and originality. The movie has some laughs, but Jarmusch seems uncomfortable really letting loose. His hipster instincts want to maintain his directorial cool, when he should be approaching the material as a madman with nothing to lose.
Unless you’re a horror director, you’ll probably only get one shot at making a zombie movie. One wonders what QT would have done with similar material. He probably would have kept the Tilda with a samurai sword stuff, but probably would have avoided the headless Selena Gomez gag. QT has more practice turning trash and cliché into great art.
Better luck next time, Jim.