‘The Dead Don’t Die,’ but this film sure does

Zombie comedy misfires on every level

Posted 6/19/19

Between “Night on Earth” in 1991, “Dead Man” in 1995 and “Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai” in 1999, Jim Jarmusch was one of the most underrated yet essential directors of the 1990s.

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‘The Dead Don’t Die,’ but this film sure does

Zombie comedy misfires on every level

Posted

Between “Night on Earth” in 1991, “Dead Man” in 1995 and “Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai” in 1999, Jim Jarmusch was one of the most underrated yet essential directors of the 1990s.

And Bill Murray, one of my all-time comedy idols, is but one of several talented and engaging actors to populate the cast of Jarmusch’s zombie film, “The Dead Don’t Die.”

So, you’ve got a director who’s long since proven his worth, and a cast of well-honed performers, many of whom have developed a fine rapport with our director from working with him before.

So what the hell happened to make “The Dead Don’t Die” so jaw-droppingly terrible?

To be fair, the screening I attended suffered from no shortage of laughter among the audience, and indeed, Jarmusch’s entire seriocomic point in exploring the zombie genre is to suggest, none too subtly, that the mindless, ravenous, walking dead are not that much different from the living, which this film illustrates by showing zombies going on to indulge their appetites for the things they enjoyed when they were still alive, after they’ve had their fill of flesh.

If you’ve never actually watched a zombie film before, I suppose this might seem like a novel observation, but for as much effort as Jarmusch and his performers put into animating his quirky cast of characters, the fact remains that “zombies are just like us” is in no way an original message, nor is it a deconstruction, or even a mild subversion, of the zombie genre.

George Romero, who essentially created the zombie genre with “Night of the Living Dead” in 1968, hammered home the idea that “zombies are us,” and are simply emulating human behavior in his 1978 sequel, “Dawn of the Dead,” in which hordes of zombies congregate at a shopping mall, because of their dim memories of spending so much time at the mall while they were still alive.

Watching Jarmusch make the same point, with his characters treating this observation as a profound revelation, is like watching Roy Lichtenstein produce oversized tracings of comic book panels drawn by other artists, and then saying, “Hey, look at this great original artwork that I made!”

It wouldn’t be so bad if Jarmusch had given his overqualified cast a set of corresponding characters worthy of their skills, but Murray, Adam Driver, Tom Waits, Steve Buscemi, Danny Glover, Caleb Landry Jones and even RZA — from the Wu-Tang Clan, who succeeded in making me chuckle by playing a delivery driver for “WU-PS” — are all utterly wasted here, playing their parts as either paper-thin ciphers or numbingly deadpan drones.

If you want a zombie comedy that makes you care about its characters, check out Sam Raimi’s “Evil Dead” series, or even “Zombieland” from 2009, which not only has something valid to say about the narrative tropes that make up the zombie genre, but also stars Bill Murray (playing himself, no less).

I feel the need to single out Chloë Sevigny for how the story does her a disservice by reducing her to a one-dimensional blubbering mess of sexist “frail female” stereotypes, and Tilda Swinton, whose subplot is as discordant and superfluous to the rest of the story as her character.

The cherry on top of this sundae of moviemaking failure is Jarmusch’s maddeningly self-indulgent fourth-wall breaks, which are the worst use of that meta-fictional narrative device since Michael Haneke’s wholly loathsome “Funny Games.”

In a film that employs Reader’s Digest cartoon-level get-off-my-lawn humor, such as having zombies clutch their smartphones and repeat the word “Wi-Fi” over and over, the closest Jarmusch comes to an inventive twist is by having the zombies rise because the earth’s natural balance is disrupted by “polar fracking.”

Unfortunately, that’s about as sophisticated as the political commentary gets, between Tom Waits delivering a ham-handedly anti-consumerist voiceover monologue during the final fight scene, and one redneck character wearing a red ball cap that reads, “Keep America White Again,” which is about as eye-rollingly on-the-nose as when Bob Hope compared zombies to Democrats in the movie “The Ghost Breakers” in 1940.

But hey, if you’ve never seen a zombie film before, maybe this is the zombie film for you.

I’ll just be over here, rewatching the works of Romero and Raimi, thank you.

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