Night of the Living Deadpan

Jim Jarmusch and Zombie Movies Don’t Really Mix

Hipster horror isn’t really a thing, at least when it comes to zombies. Just watch Jim Jarmusch’s The Dead Don’t Die, a moribund story about the undead that the downtown director weights like an albatross with his singular brand of too-cool deadpan inflections. Detached irony pairs pretty well with vampires, as Jarmusch proved in his superior Sartrean romance, the wickedly arch Only Lovers Left Alive. But here, unflustered sophistication just doesn’t click.


THE DEAD DON’T DIE ★★ (2/5 stars)
Directed by: Jim Jarmusch
Written by: Jim Jarmusch
Starring: Bill Murray, Adam Driver, Tilda Swinton, Chloë Sevigny, Steve Buscemi
Running time: 103 min


 

If zombies aren’t genuinely scary, then they’re just punching bags. Monsters need to inspire genuine, palpable fear. But that doesn’t mean they can’t be funny. George A. Romero peppers his ghoulish Dawn of the Dead with jolts of absurdity. And Dan O’Bannon surgically skewers horror in his gonzo “More brains!” creep-out Return of the Living Dead. These filmmakers respected the decay-ridden oblivion at the heart of their material. You laugh through the screams. But you’re still screaming.

Jarmusch is a droll guy, and his lo-fi classics Down By Law, Mystery Train, and Paterson are wonderfully understated exercises in poignant, bittersweet, quirky human insight. He’s also great at deconstructing genre: witness his alt-western Dead Man, his urban samurai flick Ghost Dog, his neo-melodrama Broken Flowers, and his meta-assassin thriller The Limits of Control. A Jarmusch zombie movie isn’t necessarily a bad idea, since he knows full well how to inject fresh ideas into old material.

But The Dead Don’t Die is a lark that doesn’t take its subject seriously enough. Or, more precisely, it doesn’t seem to think the subject is worth serious consideration. Jarmusch basically uses zombies as a metaphor for a glassy-eyed, disconnected culture. Other, better books, films, and TV shows have been milking that same metaphor for decades.

Tom Waits stars as “Hermit Bob” in writer/director Jim Jarmusch’s THE DEAD DON’T DIE, a Focus Features release. Credit : Abbot Genser / Focus Features © 2019 Image Eleven Productions, Inc.

Jarmusch’s movies have always been outsider art, and his protagonists have always been on the fringes. So it’s not surprising that the most durable, sympathetic, clear-eyed character is Hermit Bob (Tom Waits with a ZZ Top beard), whose rejection of society makes him the most qualified to comment on it. “I guess they were zombies all along,” he says at one point, Duh, yeah, we get it.

Jarmusch so underdevelops the rest of the players that they feel like first-draft sketches of stereotypes. Bill Murray is the laconic, seen-it-all small-town cop; Adam Driver is the earnest rookie; Chloë Sevigny is the plain-spoken potential love interest who rounds out the police department staff. Steve Buscemi plays a Trump-loving jerk farmer who sports a red “Keep America White Again” hat. Tilda Swinton delivers a Scottish-accented riff on her kooky above-it-all superior-alien-being schtick as the town’s eccentric undertaker. And Rosie Perez has a small part as newscaster Posie Juarez. Because funny, right? Not really.

The catalyst for this full-on zombie apocalypse has an eco twist. Turns out that rampant polar fracking has thrown the earth of its axis, and the traumatic imbalance in the natural order causes toxic lunar vibrations and reanimated corpses. It’s a cute conceit, a bit too smug, but still the freshest part of an otherwise flatlined film that occasionally finds its pulse. The abundantly talented cast members do shine during their too-few moments of sly wit. Having an undead Iggy Pop thirst for coffee is priceless. And Wu-PS delivery man RZA delivers the best aspirational line: “The world is perfect. Appreciate the details.” If only the rest of The Dead Don’t Die lived up to his pop philosophizing.

Stephen Garrett

Stephen Garrett is the former film editor of 'Time Out New York’ and has written about the movie industry for more than 20 years. He is also the founder of Jump Cut, a marketing company that creates trailers and posters for independent, foreign-language, and documentary films.

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