“The Dead Don’t Die” is a slow-motion disaster about a slow-motion disaster.
It’s about a zombie infestation that slowly–oh-so-slowly–devours a town, and the ineffectually slow response of those charged with stopping it.
Yes, Jim Jarmusch is attempting a commentary on Trump Era America, something he underlines with the occasional racist wearing a bright red hat and the mumbling musings of a hermit/sage on a distracted, acquisitive culture helpless in the face of an existential threat. It’s just that Jarmusch (“Night on Earth,””Broken Flowers,” “Coffee and Cigarettes”) isn’t really the right guy to pull this off.
We’ve already had zombie comic satires (“Zombieland,””Warm Bodies”). Watching this deathly dull 104 minute experiment in “Let’s see if the droll Jarmusch can make a BIG HIT for once,” I couldn’t help but think it only worked in the trailers.
A “Funny or Die” or “SNL” short film riff on “Jim Jarmusch makes a Zombie Movie” was the best destiny of “Dead Don’t Die.
Instead, we have members of his rep company (Bill Murray, Tom Waits, Tilda Swinton, Steve Buscemi) and newcomers anxious to have a little fun/add-a-little-hip-cachet to the resume (Selena Gomez, Adam Driver) performing in that slow double-take/deadpan Jarmusch style.
Here, it is tedium itself.
Centerville, Pennsylvania has 789 residents and three cops — Murray, Driver and Chloe Sevigny. Chief Cliff Robertson (Haw. Haw.) is the sort who won’t draw his gun even when Hermit Bob (Waits) fires his DIY rifle at him.
“Don’t break any more laws,” the Chief (Murray) begs, a cop who dare not shoot back, because you know, the shooter’s white. “Just calm down.”
Driver is Deputy Ronnie, who drives his SmartCar (best sight gag in the picture) like an emergency vehicle. He’s the one who decides the fact that the sun isn’t going down when it’s supposed to, the loss of cell and police radio service means “This isn’t gonna end well, Cliff.”
We take the time to absorb the irony of the racist MAGA farmer (Buscemi) tetchily talking up the hardware store owner (Danny Glover) at the diner, embarrassed to admit he can’t drink any more coffee because it’s “Too black for me,” or the comic book nerd (Caleb Landry Jones) clerk at that hardware store asking his WU-UPS (Whoops?) delivery man (RZA) to “drop a little wisdom on me.”
“The world is perfect. Appreciate the details.”
And then there are the young “Cleveland hipsters” (snort) rolling into town in Zoe’s (Gomez) mid ’60s Pontiac LeMans, the local TV news anchor (Rosie Perez) noting the strange things happening to pets, livestock and wildlife.
Only the hermit/sage sees it coming. A reckoning.
AARP punk Iggy Popp rises from the dead. As does the town alcoholic (Carol Kane) in the drunk tank.
The cute wrinkle in this version of The Walking Dead? They mutter a single word, reflecting their obsession.
A long-deceased skinny teen: “FASHION.”
A dead picker: “GUITAR.”
Carol Kane: “Char-DONNAY.”
Tilda Swinton plays “Our unusual, new undertaker” — Scottish, fond of clown makeup for her corpses, and oh yeah — a master swordswoman.
The guitar zombie is played by musician Sturgill Simpson, whose tune “The Dead Don’t Die” the hipsters and Deputy Ronnie identify as the movie’s “theme song” and are obsessed with. They also discuss the script and Jarmusch as a director. Because, you know, they’re self-aware and above all this.
That’s kind of funny, and truthfully, little moments and portions of scenes land laughs.
None as amusing as the lanky Driver unfolding himself from a SmartCar.
The problem with “Dead Don’t Die” is that it just doesn’t play. Jarmusch’s style doesn’t fit the material at feature film length. The long double-takes and slow-burn reactions, in this context, don’t delight, tickle or amuse.
I’ve been a fan since “Mystery Train” (His earlier break-out arthouse hit “Down by Law” did little for me.), and have interviewed him several times over the years. He’s stumbled before, and the wide release of this one suggests a cynical effort to sell-out and make easy money off people who will see anything with “The Living Dead” in it.
But adding overt social commentary on a genre that has ALWAYS been social commentary by definition is too heavy-handed, and the deadpan just doesn’t deliver the same comic counterpoint when the whole enterprise is deadpan by design.
MPAA Rating:R for zombie violence/gore, and for language
Cast: Adam Driver, Bill Murray, Tilda Swinton, Chloe Sevigny, Danny Glover, Steve Buscemi, Selena Gomez, Carol Kane, RZA, Caleb Landry Jones and Iggy Popp
Credits: Written and directed by Jim Jarmusch. A Focus Features release.
Running time: 1:44