Let’s keep this brief. In director Jim Jarmusch’s The Dead Don’t Die, they really don’t, but you’ll wish they did.
In the small town of Centerville (a nod to Frank Zappa’s 200 Motels perhaps?) where the population totals 738 and the sign reads ‘A Real Nice Place,’ strange things are happening. It’s late in the evening yet it’s still daylight. Watches have stopped and cellphones have lost signals. Plus, as bespectacled Chief Cliff Robertson (Bill Murray) and equally bespectacled Officer Ronnie Peterson (Adam Driver) of the local police have discovered, radio contact with other cops is difficult. “Something weird is going on,” says the ever observant Ronnie. “Yeah, weird,” agrees the chief. Evidently, nerdy black-rimmed glasses are part of the law enforcement uniform in Centerville.
And there’s more. The guy in the red ball cap that reads ‘Keep America White Again,’ Farmer Miller (Steve Buscemi) has noticed that his farm animals have disappeared. TV anchors are talking of pets acting strangely, the radio keeps reporting something about polar fracking gone wrong and how it’s affecting the Earth’s rotation even though, as the TV reporter acknowledges, “Fracking has created great jobs,” and everyone at the diner keeps wondering why the sun hasn’t set. “This isn’t gonna end well, Cliff,” warns officer Ronnie.
It all adds up to one thing, of course. Zombies. And it begins with two of them. Sara Driver and Iggy Pop drag themselves up from the dirt then slowly stumble their way out of the graveyard and stagger over to the town’s diner. As with George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead, Jarmusch’s zombies appear to be drawn towards things or places they remembered when alive. Here the zombies stumble around town mumbling “Snapple,” or “Wi-Fi.” In the case of the first two who have entered the diner, their main interest is “Coffee.” At first, after inspecting the mutilated bodies of waitresses Fern and Lily left behind on the diner floor, Hank (Danny Glover) asks the chief and his officer if it could have been the work of wild animals. “I don’t know,” responds the chief, “But whatever it was, it even smashed the coffee pots.”
Played deadpan throughout, what may have been great fun for Murray and company to film – the lengthy cast of star names are all part of the director’s repertory – is hell to sit through. The po-face humor is initially mildly amusing, but once you realize that the self-referential barbs and the straight-faced elbow to the ribs remarks are not going to get any better, The Dead Don’t Die quickly loses the comic appeal of the trailer and the list of star names on the poster that enticed you into the theater in the first place.
Tilda Swinton plays oddball sword-wielding Zelda with an out-of-this-world payoff to her character that’s meant to come as a surprise but really doesn’t. “She’s strange,” states Officer Mindy (Chloë Sevigny). “She’s Scottish,” responds the chief as if the accent explains everything. And officer Ronnie’s mantra that things are not going to end well has nothing to do with detective guesswork or general morbid negativity. As he states while in the car with his chief, it’s because he’s read the script and knows how the movie ends.
Neither scary enough for a zombie horror nor funny enough for a comedy, the film opens with a shot of Centerville’s night of the living dead cemetery while the underused Selena Gomez and friends enter the town driving a vintage Pontiac Tempest. But in case you didn’t get the movie reference, local gas station worker Bobby (Caleb Landry Jones) nods to the car by the pumps and states, “Super cool ride, by the way,” adding, “Really George Romero.”
As a present-day satire with occasional current but pat political overtones, The Dead Don’t Die feels late for the party. It might be Night of the Living Deadpan, but the joke was over a few movies ago. Despite the film’s title, these zombies are clearly DOA.
MPAA Rating: R Length: 103 Minutes