Why The Dead Won’t Die

Bill Murray, Adam Driver and Chloë Sevigny lead Jim Jarmusch’s droll but directionless opening nighter

What do you get when you mix an all star cast in a George A. Romero’s zombie classic Night of the Living Dead type movie? Well, you be the judge.

Set in the small town of Centerville, home to a population of around 700 people, The Dead Don’t Die takes aim at just how precariously close to the edge society lies, and how little it takes for it to collapse. In this case, it’s a strange phenomenon that first messes with daylight hours and then eventually causes the rising undead. But with a whole lot of absurd introspection, irony, weirdness, and deadpan humor delivered with the sluggish energy of the undead.

There’s no real protagonist here, not in the traditional sense; it’s the town that’s the true lead character. Each of the large ensemble cast are a small component of a whole that is Centerville. From the “Make America White Again” hat sporting farmer that no one likes (Steve Buscemi), to the eccentric guy Bob that lives in the woods (Tom Waits who doubles as our narrator), the shy comic collector gas store clerk Bobby (Caleb Landy Jones), the plucky motel owner (Larry Fessenden), and sweet hardware store owner Hank (Danny Glover), we get glimpses into their feuds, idiosyncrasies, and inane unhurried conversations. It’s Sheriff Cliff Robertson (Bill Murray) and his deputies Ronnie Peterson (Adam Driver) and Mindy Morrison (Chloe Sevigny) that act as the connective tissue and bookends between characters. Then there’s Tilda Swinton who ups the ante on the absurd as the bizarre Scottish mortician with a talent for katana wielding.

It’s the first act that’s the strongest, with the dry sense of humor working well with the absurdity of the dialogue and small town quirkiness. The nods and homage to Romero’s seminal work permeate from the opening imagery and never lets up. The cast is utterly charming, especially Driver and Fessenden. Then the zombies start invading. They behave just like Romero’s, right down to their gory penchant for innards chomping, except it exaggerates the “they go where they love/remember” concept introduced in Dawn of the Dead to wacky levels. These zombies utter words like “Snickers,” or “Snapple,” and “Chardonnay.”

At first, it’s humorous. But there’s no real plot and the pace keeps its consistent slow drawl throughout, making this zombie comedy crawl ever leisurely toward the end credits. The same type of jokes and references only go so far after a while, and when characters begin breaking the fourth wall it tends to elicit groans more than guffaws. Example: Driver’s character hands another his car keys during a half-hearted plan to evade zombies, and they pause a moment to comment on his Star Wars keychain. Because he’s in Star Wars, get it? Yeah.

The Dead Don’t Die is another entry in well-worn zombie (and zombie comedy) territory, full of winks and nudges that starts out entertaining but quickly ventures into tiresome. With Jarmusch’s work, it tends to be more about the characters and what’s bubbling under the surface. Only Lovers Left Alive wasn’t a vampire film so much as it was an introspection on the toll of immortality. The Dead Don’t Die is a thinly veiled reflection of our current society, or at least Jarmusch’s observations of it. “This is gonna end badly,” a line uttered often throughout, sums up the overall film- it’s absurd delivery barely conceals its pessimism. That about sums up the viewing experience, too.

The Dead Don’t Die made its U.S. Premiere at the Overlook Film Festival, and releases in the theaters June 14, 2019.

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