I don't often watch zombie movies, but when I do...I remember why I don't often watch zombie movies.
There are good reasons to be intrigued by The Dead Don't Die. It is written and directed by Jim Jarmusch, whose films include Stranger Than Paradise (1984), Down by Law (1986), Dead Man (1995), Coffee and Cigarettes (2003), Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai (1999), and Paterson (2016). This makes for a nice résumé. The cast has Bill Murray, Adam Driver, Chloë Sevigny, Tilda Swinton, Steve Buscemi as the the town jerk Farmer Frank Miller sporting a red Keep America White Again cap, Danny Glover, Tom Waits as Hermit Bob, Iggy freaking Pop in a bit zombie role, and more. At worst The Dead Don't Die almost has to be an entertaining diversion. Almost.
Jarmusch gives the tale a topical slant with a zombie apocalypse unleashed by polar fracking that has altered the earth's axis and rotation. Night and day are thrown out of whack, cell phones and watches are wiped out, pets and livestock disappear, and by the bye the dead are reanimated. They stagger out of their graves with an appetite for human flesh and in one case a craving for chardonnay.
Murray, Driver, and Sevigny make up the police department of Centerville, a small town that bills itself as "a real nice place," with its classic roadside diner that serves up coffee a little too black for Farmer Frank, the Moonlight Motel, the Ever After Funeral Home, the hardware store, and a curio shop/gas station run by a weird little guy who's seen every zombie movie ever made. What could go wrong?
First, a personal note. This may not bother everyone. The zombie flesh-eating scenes, with this bunch exhibiting a taste for entrails instead of the traditional brains fare, are too gratuitously graphic for my taste. Those depictions contribute nothing for me.
The deadpan, plodding Jarmuschian narrative has traces of dry, dark humor, little suspense, and low energy. Well, okay, zombies, there's not going to be a lot of energy. The sprinkling of self-referential, postmodernist irony is not enough to redeem it. Dead hipsters from Cleveland irony is not enough to redeem it. Theme song by Sturgill Simpson, a song everyone except the police chief (Murray) professes to love, irony is not enough to redeem it.
Tilda Swinton is a plus as some kind of enigmatic samurai Scotswoman undertaker who gets beamed up to the mother ship. So are allusions to zombie and the horror tradition, of which even I caught several. Maybe there is more by way of homage to the zombie genre that I missed, not being well-versed in it.
In the end it comes down to wave after wave of the undead who just keep coming, their numbers growing as their ranks are joined by characters introduced earlier in the film, so many our beleaguered heroes cannot lop or blast off heads fast enough. After a short while it grows tedious.
Maybe The Dead Don't Die is a parable for our time. That may be a feature of the zombie tradition, for all I know. In the words of Hermit Bob, uttered as our heroes Murray and Driver give it their best shot just before the credits roll, "man, this is a fucked-up world."
For those who get a kick out of The Dead Don't Die, great, I'm all for it. I'm happy to see Jim Jarmusch do well. This one just doesn't make it for me.
The aesthetic experience was capped off fittingly when I stepped out the back door of Cinema 21 into a homeless camp. Ah, Portland. At least no zombies. Maybe.