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The Dead Don’t Die

It’s been a while since we had a proper zombie flick. It seems like only yesterday, we were in the time between Shaun of the Dead and World War Z, when “The Walking Dead” was at peak popularity and there were no shortage of coattail-riders. But oversaturation sank in and the pendulum swung the other way as modern horror became The House That Blum Built, founded on horror films too cheap even for zombie makeup.

But Zombieland is finally getting a sequel in a few months, so maybe the genre is due for a comeback.

First, however, we have The Dead Don’t Die, a Romero riff written and directed by Jim Jarmusch, of all people. Oh, and Jarmusch also composed the score through his rock band, SQURL. Even more bizarre, he’s put together a cast of such eclectic talents as Bill Murray, Adam Driver, Tilda Swinton, Chloe Sevigny, Selena Gomez, Iggy Pop, Carol Kane, Steve Buscemi, RZA, Tom Waits, Danny Glover, Caleb Landry Jones… there’s probably a partridge in a pear tree somewhere in there as well.

Funny enough, it’s perhaps worth remembering that Jarmusch previously wrote/directed an undead movie with the vampire-centric Only Lovers Left Alive. Of course that movie didn’t even hold a third of the star power. More importantly, it was more of a brooding and introspective film without much emphasis on overt comedy or a cohesive plot. Looking at the trailer and the cast involved, I did not think this would be more of the same.

While the movies turned out to be wildly different in very crucial ways, there turned out to be a lot more connective tissue than I had expected.

To start with, there’s only the barest semblance of a plot. All the actors and characters are off doing their own thing, some intersect more often than others, some get more screen time than others, and there’s really no way of knowing who will end up getting the short end of the stick. The good news is, this lends the movie a factor of unpredictability, which means in turn that we don’t know who’s going to get killed off or when. It helps the horror very nicely.

That said, the comedy is far and away more unpredictable than the horror. Within the first ten minutes, it’s established that this movie is set in the sleepy backwoods town of “Centerville, USA”, there’s a farmer (Buscemi) wearing a bright red baseball cap that says “Keep America White Again”, and a character states point-blank that the song on the radio (“The Dead Don’t Die”, by Sturgill Simpson) sounds familiar because it’s the theme song that played over the opening credits not even three minutes ago.

So, yeah. We’re going full-on meta for this one.

It’s established early and often that the movie is self-aware, and that manifests in a bone-dry sense of humor that would’ve been right at home in a Mel Brooks picture. When one character makes a Star Wars reference directly to Adam Driver’s face, there’s no doubt whatsoever that the filmmakers knew exactly what they were doing. But what’s impressive above all else is in the running gags. Repeating jokes are extremely high-risk/high-reward, but the filmmakers keep on juggling so many of them that there’s no telling when or where the next one will come up, and they’re all delivered with pitch-perfect timing.

That said, it’s important to remember that this is hardly the first film to poke self-aware fun at George Romero’s filmography and all its ilk. Shaun of the Dead is of course a prominent example — quite possibly the definitive example, in fact. And Shaun is still the champion here.

Both movies portray ordinary people and zombies as indistinguishable from one another, thus playing into the anti-consumerist sociopolitical themes so iconic to the genre. The difference is that Shaun made satirical statements for visual humor about zombie horror tropes, while Dead makes satirical statements to talk about climate change and ignorant rednecks. Edgar Wright presented these themes to make a zombie movie, while Jarmusch is making a zombie movie to talk about these themes.

When Shaun showed us the zombie apocalypse, the implicit question was “How could you tell?” When The Dead Don’t Die shows us the zombie apocalypse, the very explicit statement is “We’ve got this coming.” Circling back around to Only Lovers Left Alive, the vampires in that movie thought of humans as zombies, often calling them as such — it’s a sentiment that Jarmusch keeps alive and well here.

Moreover, the humor in Shaun was much sharper. Because the filmmakers had a far clearer statement of intent (ie: Making a comical love letter to the works of George Romero) and the plot was limited to a small core group of characters, the movie could be more focused in its character development and comedy. You don’t get that with a zombie film that casts RZA as a delivery man for “Wu-PS” for all of one scene.

Another drawback of the film’s random plot is that it leads to several awkward cuts and storylines that go nowhere. There’s one particular scene in a hardware store, in which the camera cuts to close-ups of random objects for no other reason than because some part of the conversation clearly got cut. There’s at least two or three storylines that could’ve been cut entirely with virtually nothing lost, and one storyline that doesn’t even get an ending!

Then the climax comes and we get the piece de resistance — a moment that has nothing at all to do with zombies, and happens for absolutely no reason. It arrives out of nowhere and leaves just as quickly, all with no explanation of any kind and affects the plot in no way whatsoever. It’s funny, sure, but it’s also practically daring us to try and make any sense of it.

Every single actor in this picture looks like they’re having a blast, but the cast as a whole is sadly uneven. The core trio of Bill Murray, Adam Driver, and Chloe Sevigny probably get the best of it; respectively playing Bill Murray, a deadpan pessimist, and a career law enforcement officer pushed past her breaking point. Tom Waits is perfectly situated as the crazy old forest hermit observing and narrating from afar. Jarmusch apparently let Tilda Swinton off her leash, which is every bit as bizarre and entertaining as you’d imagine.

Steve Buscemi plays a total asshole who’s easy enough to hate, but it’s nothing on the level of Mr. Pink. Carol Kane is always a pleasure, so it’s all the more shameful she’s got pretty much nothing to do here. At least she leaves a stronger impression than Selena Gomez, who apparently showed up just to be an impossibly hot 20-something girl with no personality to speak of. (Then again, I saw Spring Breakers — it’s for the best nobody asked her to act.)

Calvin (as in “Calvin and Hobbes”) once observed that “the problem with being avant garde is knowing who’s putting on who.” That pretty well sums up where I’m at with The Dead Don’t Die. It’s a movie made by whip-smart filmmakers, all gifted with a powerful sense of humor and devastating comedic timing, and if it wasn’t for that level of talent and intelligence, the movie would’ve disappeared up its own ass. It’s an uproarious razor-sharp comedy that’s beautifully made (in spite of some painfully obvious edits), but it’s hard to classify as “good” or “bad”, because the movie defiantly exists on its own bizarro terms.

I do recommend checking this out, but you probably won’t be missing much if you wait for a rental. In any event, I strongly recommend against seeing this movie alone. This movie needs to be seen in a crowded theatre, or at least with friends and family; the better to help each other catch references, share in the jokes, and ask one another “Are you seeing this shit?!”

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