Bill Murray - Chief Cliff Robertson
Adam Driver - Officer Ronnie Peterson
Tilda Swinton - Zelda Winston
Chloe Sevigny - Officer Mindy Morrison
Steve Buscemi - Farmer Frank Miller
Danny Glover - Hank Thompson
Caleb Landry Jones - Bobby Wiggins
Rosie Perez - Posie Juarez
Iggy Pop - Male Coffee Zombie
Larry Fessenden - Danny Perkins
Tom Waits - Hermit Bob
Selena Gomez - Zoe
RZA - Dean
Carol Kane - Mallory O'Brien
Sara Driver - Female Coffee Zombie
Running Time: 104 Minutes
In a small peaceful town, zombies suddenly rise to terrorize the town. Now three bespectacled police officers and a strange Scottish morgue expert must band together to defeat the undead.
2019’s THE DEAD DON’T DIE was a film I had been eager to watch for the past two years since I watched the trailer in theaters. The vibe of the trailer reminded me of a quirkier version of ZOMBIELAND, just with a mega all-star cast that only made me anticipate the project more. However when the reviews started coming out, it was a really mixed bag leading towards more negative than power. After that, I sort of put the film in my mental queue to watch it whenever I had the chance. With the film leaving HBO Max, I decided to finally check it out and see if it was worth the wait. While the film has its moments and is well made, I unfortunately couldn’t help but feel disappointed by this zombie-comedy overall.
As a fan of Jim Jarmusch’s 2013 vampire flick ONLY LOVERS LEFT ALIVE, I was kind of expecting that kind of storytelling but with zombies. Instead, I got a film loaded with social and political commentary told through meta-jokes that felt like random skits tied together by a zombie subplot. Having commentary in a zombie movie is nothing new. And zombie comedies have been around for a long time with varied success. But the way THE DEAD DON’T DIE presented it was head scratching because the social commentary didn’t land as hard as it should have. Plus, the film was at times amusing but never really laugh-out funny. And sometimes the jokes would land but then keep going with lesser impact for whatever reason.
For example, there’s this scene where the first zombie victims are found by the local police. The sheriff enters first to see the corpse and has a bad reaction to what he sees. Then his deputy shows up, looks at the body and makes a dry comment about how disgusting it is. Then their female partner enters last and pretty much gags at the sight. Why not just have them all see the body at the same time and react to it the same way at the same time? The impact loses its power after each time. A lot of the jokes tend to do that in this film, as if to fill time rather than tell a story.
Another example is Sturgill Simpson’s “The Dead Don’t Die” theme song. I’m not sure how many times the film plays the song, but it’s so many times that I ended up disliking the song by the time the film was over. It works the first time it’s played because the song is extremely meta. But then characters continue to play it as if it’s the only song in existence and loses all of its power. Not sure what Jarmusch was thinking here.
We also have zombies who rise from their graves and utter random words, like “wifi”, “free cable”, “coffee” and “Xanax”. This is an obvious social commentary on how we, as a society, are totally reliant on technology or any time of pill or drink that will keep us functioning. The first time the zombies say these things, it’s cute. But it continues and it’s like - I get it. You can stop now and just tell a narrative that will make me want to keep watching. This commentary on our materialism isn’t new anyway. George A. Romero did it better in 1978’s DAWN OF THE DEAD because it was subtle. The zombies, in that film, roamed back towards the local mall because they wanted to be in a familiar place from their living years. The characters have like a five minute conversation about it and move on. Romero didn’t try to hammer it into our skulls because he let the story explore it in an organic way. THE DEAD DON’T DIE doesn’t have any of that.
Same goes with political commentary, which is a wasted opportunity in so many ways. One of the characters wears a red cap that reads “Keep America White Again” - obviously a jab towards the past few years of Trumpism. But nothing is really done with this aspect because the character is never given an opportunity to. He’s best friends with a black person, which I guess is supposed to be ironic and hypocritical. And then later on, a black zombie invades his home and this character blows his head off with a shotgun, commenting on how weird that was. It’s like, what’s the point of this red cap deal if you’re not going to go all the way with it. Yes, it’s an uncomfortable topic and it will definitely piss off half the audience. But it’s barely a gag and not even a real character trait. It left me wondering what was the point of it all.
That being said, I thought some of the meta jokes were pretty funny. Adam Driver’s character having a STAR WARS keychain is cute, due to how that franchise made his career. Adam Driver constantly telling everyone that “It’s not going to end well,” is funny because he later reveals he read the script while clueless Bill Murray, not knowing how the film would end, gets upset that Jim Jarmusch wouldn’t let him know despite their long working history together. Plus, having Tilda Swinton play a weird character is meta in itself since that seems to be something some audiences and critics criticize her for. So when the jokes work, they really work. Unfortunately, the film seems too up its ass to hit a home run each time.
Jim Jarmusch is a good director for the most part and he visualizes THE DEAD DON’T DIE in a pleasing way. The film is paced well and the edits and transitions between characters dealing with their own zombie crisis is done nicely. The zombies are shot really well, looking pretty cool and similar to The Walking Dead. The death scenes and special effects are also well done. We get the usual flesh eating, a shotgun point blank to the head that creates a cool explosion and a bunch of decapitations via blades or swords. The cool smoky-ash effect after the zombies are taken care of is a nice detail that I haven’t seen done in a zombie movie before. I wish the script was stronger because visually, the film is pretty damn good.
The actors also keep this film afloat. Unfortunately, there’s so many of them that most don’t get a whole lot to do in the movie. It’s nice to see Selena Gomez in a movie, sure. But she doesn’t have anything to do besides be the subject of a slightly racist joke and part of the film’s body count. I can say that about a lot of the cast. As for the standouts, Bill Murray does his normal schtick and it works as the film’s sheriff, while Driver gets to have more fun as the dry deputy who has strange reactions to everything around him. Chloe Savigny is a mixed bag for me, as she seemed to be a hybrid of both the Murray and Driver characters but without the charm or delivery. I thought Tilda Swinton was an oddly charming delight as a Scottish mortician who can handle a samurai sword like no one’s business. And Steve Bucsemi, Danny Glover and Caleb Landry Jones get their moments to shine when they do appear. And it was definitely cool to spot cameos like Iggy Pop and Carol Kane as zombies. It’s definitely an awesome cast of actors and singers, but most of them are glorified cameos more than anything else.
THE FINAL HOWL
I was pretty disappointed with THE DEAD DON’T DIE - which I entirely blame on the marketing due to it portraying the film as a ZOMBIELAND type of comedy when it’s anything but. It also doesn’t help that the screenplay feels like a bunch of loosely connected skits that are trying too hard to be funny, only hitting the mark only some of the time. Some of the meta jokes work, especially in the last half of the film. And some of the dialogue and events in the film are genuinely chuckle worthy. But sometimes the jokes run way too long, making them lose all impact. And the social and political commentary is expected, but it was expressed a lot better in George A. Romero films and other popular zombie films that understood how to balance the message within the actual narrative. THE DEAD DON’T DIE has something to say, but does it in the laziest manner possible, which is disappointing.
Besides that, I felt the direction by Jim Jarmusch was mostly well done as the film flowed pretty well and looked pretty polished. The zombie make up looked alright and the gore effects were nicely done and added a much needed punch towards the end of the film. And the acting is great, especially by Bill Murray, Adam Driver and Tilda Swinton. But with so many celebrities in one film, it’s hard for everyone to get a chance to shine. Felt like a marketing ploy to have all these stars in one movie, which worked since that was one of the reasons I wanted to see this. But I’d just stick with RETURN OF THE LIVING DEAD or even SHAUN OF THE DEAD for your zombie-comedy needs, unless you’re a Jim Jarmusch fan and want to see his take on a zombie flick. Unfortunately, he made a product that felt as lifeless as the zombies themselves for the most part.