What would happen if you invited a slew of A-list actors to the zombie apocalypse and everyone just kind of lost interest?
Why, then, you’d have Jim Jarmusch’s gloriously-uneven The Dead Don’t Die which over the course of ever-more-inert one hour and forty-three minutes rather ironically loses its will to live, and unlike m any of its undead cast, never quite comes to life, reanimated or otherwise.
Mixing together the kind of meta commentary that Mel Brooks and Monty Python used to far greater, and far funnier, effect, allusions to, and indeed direct quotes from, George Romero’s Dawn of the Dead, and Jarmusch’s famously laid back style, The Dead Don’t Die is a film eagerly looking to be the new satirical voice of the zombie genre.
This is partly because the genre, by dint of advanced age and increasing loss of anything new to say, is pretty satirising itself at this point – sometimes with specific intent; see Z Nation as Exhibit A – but mostly because Jarmusch takes something that is by its nature fast moving, loaded with meaning and dynamic and makes it summer day chilled, as if the best way to end the world is in bewildered slow motion.
This works, in part, at first, simply because our eyes into the world’s most relaxed zombie apocalypse, where the undead come not from viruses but from graves, are Bill Murray and Adam Driver, as Police Chief Cliff Robertson and Officer Ronald “Ronnie” Peterson respectively, two consummate actors whose underwhelmingly nonplussed response to strange goings-on in the small town of Centreville, Pennsylvania kind of capture the way many of us might react to things not being quite right.
Cue bafflement at the way night refuses to arrive on the first day, even when it’s well past the time for it to do so, how everything electronic suddenly flickers, statics and dies, and how the cats, dogs, and yes even cows of the town are seeking shelter far away from humanity whose time, they intuitively know is numbered.
It’s actually funny – if you haven’t seen cows running in abject panic, then this is your chance – watching the world slowly slide into oblivion, the result apparently of polar fracking which has tilted the earth off its axis, is way more bovine-focused than you might have expected and treated with the kind of confused solemnity and wry disbelief it probably deserves.
The only person who seems to have a reasonably firm grasp on what is going on is Hermit Bob (Jarmusch regular Tom Waits), who observes the ants going manic, weird red mushrooms popping up where they usually do not, and animals loses their customary natural cool, and deduces, quite correctly that something is dreadfully awry.
He, and decidedly odd undertaker Scottish Zelda Winston (Tilda Swinston in weird af mode to the max), whose departure from the film is hilariously bizarre and also emblematic of much of what’s wrong with the film, particularly in its final act, are the only ones who handle the end of the world with any kind of good sense or aplomb.
Together, they are a core of can-do sanity at the heart of a shambling film unsure if it’s wacky screwball meta piece of satirical hilarity, something a tad more serious but with an eye in a humorously off kilter manner, or some weird mix of the two.
The thing is there are plenty of good old fashioned throaty laughs to be had in the first half of the film when strange and unusual occurrences begin to give way to chewed-on bodies in the diner – “It looks like a wild animal did it … or several wild animals” is a line oft repeated, as it Ronnie’s observance that things are going to end well – weapons-filled boltholes in the hardware store and zombies with a predilection for coffee (thank you Iggy Pop and Sara Driver) and lots of it (even if their consumption techniques leave a little to be desired).
The constant references to the theme song “The Dead Don’t Die” and even the appearance of a CD single of the song are not only funny in a Spaceballs, self-aware merchandising kind of way, but begin to build the central theme of the film, which is that consumerism has already turned us into unthinking so how are things different now?
In the first part of the film, this inherent lack of thematic subtlety works because the film itself is not even remotely subtle, and works nicely, bolstered by laconic deliveries par excellence, a tight silly, often silly script and a sense that the looming build-up of doom has a comic silver lining.
But as things progress, and events take a turn for the worse, and it has to be said, less comically inspired, the hamfisted messaging of the narrative start to feel as clunky as the misaligned footsteps of the many dead infesting the town.
It culminates in a final act so ridiculously over the top and clumsily polemic that much of the goodwill built up in the film’s first two-thirds is spent to no discernible or rewarding degree.
The Dead Don’t Die succeeds at first because it actually offers something a little fresh, the undead notwithstanding, where pretty much everything has been said or done.
The idea that people like Cliff, Ronnie, their fellow police person Mindy (Chloë Sevigny), “asshole” Farmer Miller (Steve Buscemi) that no one rushes to save, and hardware shop owner Hank Thompson (Danny Glover) might greet the end of the world with shoulder shrugging, head-scratching uncertainty makes a whole lot of sense.
That they do it with what feels like authentically-improvised dialogue, laconic delivery and a gloriously off-kilter sensibility only adds to the fun, investing The Dead Don’t Die, initially anyway, with a gleeful sense of understated mischief.
But then all the lead-up goes nowhere, dissipating into a storytelling muddle that isn’t sure whether its pedal-to-the-metal horror and the resulting emotional and physical mayhem that entails, Mel Brooks lunacy in an undead guise, or some sort of sage lesson in the perils of worshipping mobile phones, wi-fi-coffee and a thousand other consumerist trappings of the twenty-first century.
The result is a film that, much like its undead inhabitants who move with all the grace and elegance of a munted flamingo with broken legs and wings, launches from funny and clever to uncertain and half-done to mish-mash messy in a final act, losing any promise it had at the start and making us glad that the end of things has come at last.