Review: The Dead Don't Die (15)

Our own Joe Holloran takes a look at the latest horror-comedy from cult director Jim Jarmusch.

Joe Holloran
30th July 2019
The notion of a Jim Jarmusch horror-comedy is one that you’d never think of. But if like me you were fascinated by the idea, The Dead Don’t Die quickly became one of the movies to check out this summer. Which is one of the reasons the end result was so disappointing.

The acclaimed indie director’s twenty-ninth directorial outing stars some of the biggest names in cinema of the past – Steve Buscemi (Reservoir Dogs, Fargo), Danny Glover (Zodiac, Dogville)  & Bill Murray (c’mon) – and one currently at the top of their game - Adam Driver (Girls, Star Wars). No matter how much some uppity critics deride Driver for his role in the latest Star Wars movies, his talent is unquestionable, and his reputation will only continue to grow after this movie.

The eternaly cool Jim Jarmusch. Image:IMDB

The Dead Don’t Die takes place in the small rural American town of Centerville. Two police officers, the experienced and jaded Chief Robinson (Murray) and youngster officer Peterson (Driver), respond to a call from local farmer, the intriguingly named Frank Miller (Buscemi) about the mysterious disappearance of his prized chicken. Naturally, this leads to a zombie apocalypse. With some of the other town residents – RZA, Tom Waits & Danny Glover among them – the pair must fight to survive and save their town all the while looking for answers, with equal moments of dark comedy and glorious gore along the way. 

Sadly, the most frustrating thing about this movie is the sad fact that Driver and Murray just don’t click as an onscreen partnership and this fact blights the whole experience. While that relationship fails to light up the screen, the comedic performances of Chloe Sevigny and the ever-versatile Tom Waits are a highlight and their screen time is gold. If I had to sum up this film’s strengths and weaknesses (which I guess I was doing anyway) then the fantastic casting choices and the witty chemistry of the ensemble cast of minor characters is perhaps the movie’s best quality. Unfortunately, unlike say Shaun of the Dead (2004), the comedy isn’t undercut with enough commitment to horror conventions, such as over-the-top gore and moments where you feel anxious for the safety of our heroes. The film is amusing, don’t get me wrong, it features some of the best sight gags I have seen in a while, it’s just a shame that more jokes ‘die on their feet’ (pardon the expression) than leave you rolling on the floor bleeding.

Tilda Swinton chanelling Uma Thurman in Kill Bill. Image:IMDB

Jarmusch is well known to film nerds, but he is hardly a household name. A read through the synopsise for films like Down by Law (1986), Night on Earth (1991) and Dead Man (1995) and it’s not hard to see why. His dark, sardonic comedies are tinged with the avant-garde and were never the type of movies to break box-office records. Not that this mattered. At all. What the New York native lacked in mainstream appeal he more than made up for in cult status. Now, however, the wider cinema-going public has been introduced to Jarmusch’s style with The Dead Don’t Die, and it is undoubtably his most accessible film. Unfortunately, herein lies the problem. When you go and see a Jim Jarmusch film you want to leave feeling like you just saw something funny, confusing and actually surprisingly poignant. That is the problem with this movie. I left it feeling like I just watched a Netflix original horror-comedy, and a lack of style for a Jarmusch film equals mediocrity.

Can't imagine Kylo Ren driving this can you? Image:IMDB

So, all things considered the overwhelming feeling I am left with is one of disappointment at a chance missed. Those who have never seen a film by this legendary director before can appreciate the film as a decent horror-comedy and enjoy seeing the one and always King of Comedy acting Bill Murray on screen again. But for those of us who look up to Jarmusch as one of the best living directors, all I can say is I know one thing for certain. He will bounce back. If his past shows us anything it’s that he never makes two dubs back-to-back, and given his last true masterpiece was Broken Flowers back in 2005, he is due another one soon. So, watch this space.

If, because of this movie, some people go online and find Jarmusch’s other films and appreciate them and their importance, then perhaps that will be the most important legacy of this sadly lacklustre film. Besides, I defy anyone to come up with a better cast-list for any movie all year. Any film that has Iggy Pop, Tom Waits, Tilda Swinton rubbing shoulder is worth a cursory watch. Isn’t it?

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