When a movie actually rips off Ed Wood’s notorious Plan 9 From Outer Space, you know there’s a problem. I wouldn’t generally compare indie darling Jim Jarmusch to schlockmeister Wood, but on the other hand, there’s probably no one I’d be less likely to trust with a zombie movie, either. Jarmusch has been an indie director since we called them arthouse directors. He’s never worked on the commercial side of the street, and I’m morally certain he never wanted to. From his directorial debut in 1980 with Permanent Vacation, to 1986’s Down by Law, which featured Tom Waits, a frequent Jarmusch collaborator, Ellen Barkin and eventual Oscar winner Roberto Benigni, to his three Coffee and Cigarettes shorts that eventually gave rise to a feature of the same name, to his Tom Waits and Neil Young music videos and documentaries, Jarmusch has steadfastly and consistently refused to make a movie that was likely to make money.
So how the Hell do we explain The Dead Don’t Die, a comedic zombie movie that’s neither scary nor particularly funny? The late George A. Romero, who created the entire zombie apocalypse genre with Night of the Living Dead back in 1968, is probably rolling in his grave over this limp, smug send-up, and if he rose from the grave to complain, I wouldn’t blame him. Despite an astonishing cast (Jarmusch is one of those directors stars are willing to work for scale for) that includes Bill Murray (who loves saying “Eff-u” to Hollywood), Adam Driver (who came up through indies), Tom Waits, the hardworking Chloë Sevigny, who’s done everything from indies to TV’s American Horror Story, Steve Buscemi, Danny Glover, RZA, Rosie Perez, Tilda Swinton, Iggy Pop, Selena Gomez and country singer Sturgill Simpson (who wrote and recorded the title credits song, a point which is a recurring joke in the movie), this zombie apocalypse yarn is DOA.
As the movie opens, Centerville Chief of Police Cliff Robertson (Bill Murray) and Officer Ronnie Peterson (Adam Driver) are driving off into suitably forbiddng woods to investigate the apparent theft of a chicken by local oddity “Hermit Bob” (Tom Waits), who more than anything else resembles Nick Nolte in the cowardly lion makeup. Hermit Bob takes a shot at them, but they let it go because he’s never hurt anyone that anyone is aware of. What does this have to do with the impending zombie apocalypse? Your guess is as good as mine.
Murray is unbelievably bland in this, and there’s a distinct eau d’improvisation to much of the proceedings. Only Swinton and Driver seem determined to turn in real performances, and Driver’s recurrent line, “This isn’t going to end well,” could refer to either the zombie apocalypse and the movie itself.
Summer Stock Production of OUR TOWN in Twin Peaks
Jarmusch has to take the blame for the script – he let them put his name on it. The first act is interminable. Way too leisurely, Jarmusch presents his audience, most of whom are under the impression, fair or not, that they’re there to see a zombie movie, with an unending stream of character vignettes. It feels like we’ve stumbled into a summer stock production of Our Town in Twin Peaks. While we’re meeting the townsfolk, including Steve Buscemi as an over-the-top racist who wears a bright red, “Keep America White Again” baseball cap, we find that strange things are afoot. Watches have stopped, the police radio is cutting out and, oh yeah – fracking at the poles has shifted the Earth off its axis and it’s still light out at midnight. Well that ought to raise the dead if anything would.
Don’t Need a Reason for the Zombie Apocalypse
Zombie movie aficionados don’t need a reason for the zombie apocalypse – the point is to get on with the zombie apocalypse. And that’s a rule that applies whether you’re doing it straight or not. Jarmusch is using this as political commentary, and that’s fine, but it is somewhat ham-handed and letting the message get in the way of the narrative is a rookie mistake. Jarmusch is no rookie and there’s really no excuse for it. It’s also just a badly constructed script, dangling way too many unresolved plotlines and loose threads, even for a thin pastiche. Tilda Swinton’s character, a recent transplant, and a Scottish mortician at that, turns out to be a kendo expert and fearlessly walks the streets of the zombie-infested town swinging a samurai sword with a panache that would be admirable if The Walking Dead hadn’t introduced Danai Gurira as Michonne years ago. Again, there’s a been-there-done-that quality that undermines any real humor that might have been had.
PLAN 9 FROM OUTER SPACE Proto-Version of NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD
There’s also another twist, which seems to hearken back to Ed Wood’s Plan 9 From Outer Space, in which aliens resurrected the dead to try to scare humans into submission. Wood’s film is widely and deservedly regarded as the worst film ever made, but in its sheer inept awfulness it is fabulously entertaining, though never in the way Wood intended. Jarmusch may have realized that it was a proto-version of Romero’s first zombie apocalypse movie, but if this was his point he should have done far more with it. He also never lets us linger on the vintage horror movie posters that adorn the walls of Centerville gas station/convenience store wall.
Driver’s character notes that zombies usually want to eat the brains of their victims first, which is by the way mainly true in Romero’s former collaborator, John Russo’s Return of the Living Dead horror comedies, in which the zombies also talk. True fans will be aware that Romero’s living dead often show a preference for the intestines, and that they, like The Walking Dead, don’t talk.
Late in the Game for a Zombie Send-Up
Why anyone thought another zombie send-up was a good idea defies comprehension. Has everyone at Focus Fatures had their brains eaten? It’s a little late in the game for another funny zombie movie. I would have thought that between them Shaun of the Dead and Zombieland had pretty much taken all the good jokes.
Too Cool for the Room
But then The Dead Don’t Die isn’t particularly funny. It has the tone throughout of a student film by an undergraduate who’s convinced he’s too cool for the room. The movie has a typically Jarmuschian, blasé self-consciousness: “The dead are rising, but dude, getting excited about it just isn’t cool…” We’re beaten over the head with the perception that the zombies go back to what they remember, however dimly from life. There’s even a hint that in our commercial, capitalist, effed-up society, there’s shockingly little difference between the living and the living dead. The thing is, Jarmusch didn’t come up with this. Romero made it the theme of his 1978 sequel, Dawn of the Dead, which was set in, of all things, a shopping mall.
The Dead Don’t Die is full of in-jokes for Jarmusch’s fans, and they’re better than his horror genre jokes. The first two zombies are played by Sara Driver, Jarmusch’s long-time partner and Iggy Pop, who’s looked like the walking dead for years. They invade a diner, but give up on devouring their human victims in favor of coffee. They’re still carrying the silexes when we see them again several scenes later.
Zombie Movie Without Zombie Movie Level Violence
Fans of zombie apocalypse movies are also going to notice that despite its well-deserved R rating, the violence is comparatively mild. The phrase “zombie movie level violence” is reserved for truly over-the-top graphic violence. The Dead Don’t Die is tame compared to a routine episode of The Walking Dead. You can’t be afraid of the violence in this genre, and both Edgar Wright and Ruben Fleischer knew that when they directed Shaun of the Dead and Zombieland, respectively.
True to form, the zombies can only be put down by decapitation or otherwise destroying their brains, but Jarmusch’s special effects team has added the bizarre touch of having clouds of black smoke waft up from the headless necks. There are also a ridiculous and unbelievable number of zombies rising from graves in the cemetery, apparently shallowly buried without coffins or vaults. Some of them were also buried in some very unusual outfits – vests without shirts? Football uniforms? And most of them should have decomposed more. Jarmusch just wanted the iconic shot of the hand coming out of the ground, which belongs more in Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” video than a modern horror movie.
Neither scary nor funny, The Dead Don’t Die also feels far longer than it’s hour and forty-five minute running time. The best joke, by far, is seeing the six foot two Adam Driver driving a little red Smart car. Jarmusch and his cast seem to think they’ve made a cutting edge comedy as sharp as Tilda Swinton’s sword, but in reality they’re way behind the curve. This send-up was in rigor mortis before it was shot. Someone call an undertaker.