The Dead Don’t Die (2019)

Directed by Jim Jarmusch; Written by Jim Jarmusch

The cinematic equivalent of a sneaker collab. 

The zombie genre has seen few changes since George A. Romero unleashed it on popular culture almost 50 years ago. Ask anyone with even a casual knowledge of the genre how a film usually goes, and they could likely give you a pretty thorough outline: In Anyplace, USA, a quiet town in nondescript flyover country, flags hang proud all the way down Main Street, local police are trusted, the diner serving hot black coffee is the city think tank, and teenagers court in their cars. One night, the dead rise to terrorize this slice of Americana, chowing down on guilty and innocent alike. Some may survive, most will not. 

In The Dead Don’t Die, Jim Jarmusch takes it back to the modest basics. We’re in small Centerville (“A Real Nice Place,” the town slogan reads), a place of affable, but edible people. On the news, we’re told fracking at the poles has thrown the globe off its axis, which is bad, say scientists, which is wrong, say industry spokespeople. One night in this unhinged world, the dead rise, and you know the rest.  A long list of stars (think Wes Anderson-long) flesh out the cast of townspeople, with Adam Driver and Bill Murray taking center stage as local law enforcement officers tasked with stopping the inevitable.

There are fun elements of Jarmusch’s usual idiosyncrasies. RZA, of the Wu-Tang Clan and frequent collaborator of Jarmusch, shows up as a delivery driver, driving for WU-PS; Tom Waits is a kooky woodsman loner who narrates the fray; Tilda Swinton plays a Scottish mortician with sharp swordplay skills. But these are flourishes on a film where Jarmusch otherwise leans hard on the presets – there’s nothing novel or freshly insightful about The Dead Don’t Die as a zombie film, and it doesn’t divorce itself from the genre’s trappings enough to simply use the circumstances for a story about something else.  

All of this leaves you feeling The Dead Don’t Die is Jarmusch leaning back, kicking his feet up, and admitting that he’s not even going to try. You’re here for Jarmusch coolness and deadpan humour, and the “genre exercise” is him having found a premade mold for simplified delivery of aforementioned hallmarks. 

If you count yourself among Jarmusch’s fans, nothing I write will dissuade you from seeing it. Nor should it. The Dead Don’t Die is not a bad film, and I enjoyed it throughout, but it does have the artistic significance of a sneaker collab. What you’re getting is an otherwise unassuming shoe, but it has your idol’s name on it, and maybe a cosmetic addition of a reference that triggers fandom dopamine. 

Nothing in The Dead Don’t Die is going to feast on your brain or send a shiver down your spine. It’s not spooky or thought-provoking (it has some politics in it, an altered Trump cap makes an appearance, and  some dialogue basically just rehashes the old academic discourses on Romero’s films being a commentary on consumerism), and the one deviation of the zombie formula the film boasts doesn’t elicit more than a shrug from the characters, so I don’t see why it should be any different for us. It’s texture rich entertainment by a devotedly American filmmaker, delivered without nerve. 

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