{Movie Review} “Sort of Funny; Sort of Boring”: The Dead Don’t Die (2019)

Nothing is happening normally right now.” – The Dead Don’t Die (2019)

Prior to sitting down with The Dead Don’t Die (if you think I’ve said the title a lot already, wait ‘til you hear how many times they say it) I had never actually seen a Jim Jarmusch movie the whole way through. When I was a young idiot, some friends and I went to see Ghost Dog, but we hadn’t so much as seen a trailer and were expecting some kind of martial arts/action movie. I don’t really remember anything about the experience, but one of my friends was so incensed by it that he convinced us all to walk out and, if memory serves, into a screening of Romeo Must Die, which is more the speed that we were all looking for right then.

So how was my first full experience with a Jim Jarmusch film? I had fun, and, at the end of the day, how much more can I really ask for, besides maybe a better focus puller? On my way out of the screening, I overheard someone else say that the film was “sort of funny; sort of boring.” While I got more of the funny than the boring, myself, I think he nailed it, at least as far as how the average audience will react.

 Photos Courtesy of Animal Kingdom

In the little notebook that I took with me to jot down notes while I was watching the movie, I wrote, “Fans of stunt casting, deadpan deliveries, and people repeating one another, your ship has come in.”

Besides the main cast of Bill Murray, Adam Driver, Chloe Sevigny, and Tilda Swinton as a katana-wielding “Scottish” undertaker, The Dead Don’t Die features bit parts by a who’s who of people certain kinds of film nerds will enjoy seeing, including Steve Buscemi, Danny Glover, RZA, Larry Fessenden, and Carol Kane and Iggy Pop as zombies, among others. Naturally, Tom Waits acts as the film’s Greek chorus in the form of a wise yet foul-mouthed hermit.

(The audience I saw it with was really amused by Tom Waits cursing. If you also find Tom Waits cursing hilarious, you are in good hands here.)

This is a zombie movie that has only ever seen two other zombie movies: Night of the Living Dead and Plan 9 from Outer Space, complete with a third-act reveal that was handled to better effect in the 2003’s Undead. It feels like a film that thinks it just discovered the zombie comedy, and isn’t aware that there’s been dozens of them for decades.

 Photos Courtesy of Animal Kingdom

For most of its running time, the heavy-handed obviousness of The Dead Don’t Die’s central metaphors are played for laughs, but toward the end it starts to take them seriously, and hopes that you will too. It turns out that they aren’t sturdy enough to withstand that kind of pressure.

It seems that polar fracking has thrown the earth off its axis. Watches stop working; radios and TVs get crappy reception; smartphones simply shut down until a tired gag requires that they not have. In one of the film’s better and more underplayed details, the days and nights change length seemingly at random. And, of course, all of this, along with some “toxic lunar vibrations,” lead the dead to rise from their graves. Sporadically at first (we don’t know why) and then seemingly all at once.

The reanimated dead follow the Romero playbook more-or-less exactly, munching on guts and flocking to activities they performed in life, complete with repetitive chants of things like “Wi-Fi,” “coffee,” and “Chardonnay.” Waits gets a lengthy near-end voice-over lamenting how everyone was a zombie already because they gave away their souls to smart phones and dishwashers or some such hokum that feels way too on-the-nose to be anything but a joke, even if, by then, we’re supposed to take it seriously.

 Photos Courtesy of Animal Kingdom

None of it really matters anyway, because The Dead Don’t Die is fundamentally all-but plotless, reducing all of its “action”—which mostly amounts to people talking dryly and occasionally driving around (also part of the gag, I’m sure)—to little more than a series of vignettes set against the backdrop of the most laid-back zombie apocalypse ever caught on film. If you’re preparing to tell me that all of this is subtext, a parallel to our hopelessness in the face of climate change and Trump’s post-truth America, don’t worry, the movie makes that all perfectly, painfully clear.

In fact, for a film so aggressively unaggressive, it also doesn’t seem to trust the intelligence of its audience all that much. There is hardly an Easter egg to be found that isn’t heavily lampshaded, and there are no good lines (or, indeed, many lines at all) that aren’t said more than once. Is this bog standard Jarmusch, or an attempt to dumb things down for the zombie movie crowd? I don’t have the experience to say.

 Photos Courtesy of Animal Kingdom

The movie also boasts some metafictional elements deployed to varying degrees of success. Besides nods to other films that are virtually always pointed out to you, there’s the simple fact that most of the characters leap immediately to the conclusion “zombies,” and also know how to react accordingly because they’ve all seen Night of the Living Dead, just like you have.

Mere minutes after the opening credits, complete with theme song by Sturgill Simpson, that same song comes on the radio of the police cruiser that Bill Murray and Adam Driver are riding around in. Murray asks why it seems so familiar, to which Driver replies, “It’s the theme song.” This may be the first time the two characters refer to the fact that they’re in a movie, but it isn’t the last.

These metafictional tangents are sometimes funny, including a lengthy gag near the end, but they seldom do much to contribute to the film, making them feel pointless and orphaned, even when they get a few chuckles. For all these complaints, though, I found The Dead Don’t Die to be more charming than boring. I had a good time, and it usually doesn’t feel like it’s reaching for much more than that, which is something, anyway.