The Dead Don't Die (2019)

JUNE 14, 2019


Jim Jarmusch's Only Lovers Left Alive was one of my favorite movies that year, and remains an easy title to name-check whenever someone asks for a solid vampire movie they might not have seen, so I was hoping that The Dead Don't Die would follow suit, with Jarmusch applying his trademark deadpan outlook (and... let's say "casual" approach to plotting) to the zombie film. Alas, very little about it worked for me, and since horror is not his forte I truly hate the idea that someone who might be interested in the filmmaker trying his hand at genre at this later stage in his career might see this (it's his first ever wide release) and be turned off from checking out Only Lovers, thinking it would be just as interminable.

If you've seen the trailer, you've basically seen everything the movie has to offer - a lot of fun people (Bill Murray! Adam Driver! Tilda Swinton! Tom Waits!) shrugging their way through a Romero-esque zombie outbreak, a joke that's mileage will vary depending on your personal preferences. For me it wore thin rather quickly; the zom-coms that work best (Shaun of the Dead, Zombieland, etc) all eventually have the heroes get a little more proactive and balance the tone so that it feels like a fully satisfying ride, but here Jarmusch is content to keep it at an energy level barely hovering over zero. Even when heroes Adam Driver and Bill Murray finally do spring into action (a sequence highlighted in the trailer as if it was a third act kickoff, but is actually the film's final scene) there's an air of glibness to it that just didn't work for me.

The plot, such as it is, is at least grounded in some kind of good idea. Unlike Romero's films (Night is name-checked; more on that soon) we get a legit explanation for the undead rising from their graves: polar fracking has caused the Earth to shift on its axis, resulting in any number of side effects such as animals getting confused, the day/night cycle getting screwy, etc. in addition to the zombies (sure, why not?). News reports inform us that it's happening everywhere, but our focus remains on a generic small town and its sleepy denizens. Some of the actors, particularly Chloe Sevigny and Danny Glover, seem to think they're in a real zombie movie and act appropriately (concerned/scared), others, like Driver, just sort of stare blankly at it. And Murray just does his Murray thing, albeit laid-back even by his standards - it's hard to describe a Bill Murray performance as, well, a "performance", really, but relatively speaking it might be the laziest I've seen from him.

In fact, at one point I even pondered if the actors were on the same page as to what kind of movie this was, when the movie itself answered me with a "probably not". Throughout the movie, Murray and Driver occasionally lapse into some fourth-wall breaking by commenting on the movie's theme song by Sturgill Simpson (who appears as a zombie) and whether or not they are improvising through some dull backstory. For their final one, Murray asks Driver how he knows that "things won't end well", a phrase he keeps repeating, and Driver tells him that it's because he read the script. Murray then laments that "Jim" only let him read his own scenes, and whether or not it's true doesn't matter - the point is I felt that I was watching a movie where no one was aware of what anyone else was doing, and here was the movie confirming that was very likely.

In fact I almost considered walking out at one point, and not because it was "the worst movie ever made" or anything like that - it just became clear that I had already seen everything it had to offer after by the halfway point, and reading even a very thorough wiki synopsis would have had the same effect in a tenth of the time. The final straw was when I realized what the zombies were REALLY saying. See, these ones talk, but only one word each, and I thought it was just them talking about the last thing on their mind before they died; for example, the first two we meet just keep saying "coffee" over and over, and it's clear that they died in some kind of vehicle accident, so maybe they were on their way to get coffee when they got hit, right? Nope - later on we meet some that are saying things like "Siri" and "Xanax" and I realized that Jarmusch was making the same joke Romero did FORTY YEARS AGO in Dawn of the Dead, and doing a lesser job to boot. Yes, the zombies aren't much different from the "living" people who are driven by consumerism. Very clever.

(In case you still don't get it, Waits' character spells it out in a film-closing rant.)

This is where I lost what little hope I had left for the film; Night got name-checked a few times (Selena Gomez drives the same car Barbara and Johnny had, and every character that sees it notices) but apparently he never got around to watching Dawn (he would have referenced it too, right? Especially since he's making the same point?), and we have to suffer through 105 minutes of proof. I really only stuck around for Driver, whose deliveries were amusing enough (plus I generally like the guy), and Swinton, who is having the most fun out of anyone playing a Scottish mortician who gets all Michonne on the zombies while walking around like a video game character (when she walks across the street and up an angled pathway, it kind of looks like Pac-Man navigating a maze - it's really quite impressive physical work from the actress). Everyone else's role was too erratic to care much about; Jarmusch's films have always had dropped subplots and out of nowhere resolutions, but the ensemble nature (as opposed to the compact cast of Only Lovers) makes the film feel like its runtime got cut in half by removing scenes at random. Someone will be fine, and then they'll be a zombie the next time we see them - what happened?

Thankfully, I didn't care much - if anything I'm grateful that just meant the movie was shorter. A few scattered laughs and a halfway decent "why" were not nearly enough to make this worth my while; it was neither funny enough to be a good comedy or exciting enough to be a good zombie movie. Maybe if Jarmusch took the anthology/vignette approach of many of his older films and showed each character's story as a standalone segment before rewinding to show another (instead of cutting back and forth between them with no real rhyme or reason), it might have felt less aimless, or at least had larger chunks that worked instead of fleeting moments here and there. But every time it felt like it might pick up a bit, the energy deflated again, and while that tact worked for some (a few of my BMD cohorts loved it), I found myself wishing I was next door watching Dark Phoenix or Men in Black 4 instead. Better to walk out of a lazy franchise entry saying "yep, just as forgettable as I figured it would be" than to walk out of an original thinking of all the other movies that did the same thing better.

What say you?


  1. Even though Only Lovers was more fascinating, I enjoyed more this flick. I always loved the moody irony of Bill Murray, and Adam Driver is a nice shoulder to lean on. Sure, some things were just plain weird (Tilda Swinton and her "secret". WTF!!) but the flick is surely enjoyable, albeit not very horror.

  2. Thank you for giving this horrible film the spanking it deserves! I saw it on the opening night of the Overlook Film Fest this year and HATED it (I liked it less than you, I think). What a terrible way to open the festival (luckily it recovered quickly). I can't believe that most critics are giving this a pass. If Asylum had made this no-one would be kind to it. But because it's Jim Jaramush everyone is afraid to say how terrible it is.

    Truly awful. Pointless and with nothing to say. Why does this film exist? Bill Murray is likeable and Cloe Sevigny is actually really good but no-one is given ANYTHING to do. What is Selena Gomez doing here? The film has one SOLID laugh (Adam Driver in his Smart car) but otherwise this was a serious chore. Yuk!

    1. Oh man, I forgot the Smart car gag. That might have been the hardest I laughed now that I think of it. Driver deserves better than this!

  3. Oh now I'm sad. :( How disappointing!


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