When the smoke clears and the very last episodes of The Walking Dead finally air, it might be a prudent idea for filmmakers and TV creatives out there to call a halt on anything related to zombies, walkers, wights, ghouls, and whatever other names they’ve come up in the last decade and a half. Horror’s most popular modern subgenre has almost certainly run its course, with the living dead having used up and burnt out every possible scenario and metaphor thrown at them.
Into this creative rut comes Jim Jarmusch and The Dead Don’t Die, the iconoclastic director’s attempt to both play around in and satirize the concept of the reanimated dead and what they could mean to us today. But one thing is for sure: They don’t mean much to Jarmusch himself, and if he thought the very idea of him commenting on the genre with a glittering cast by his side was enough to tide him over the utter vacuity of the movie itself, he has made a serious mistake.
Jarmusch’s ultra-laconic, free-floating style has been well-suited in the past to such iconic indie films as Stranger than Paradise, Dead Man and more recent entries like Broken Flowers. But this attempt at a removed, laid-back view of a zombie apocalypse doesn’t succeed in the same wa. The bizarre meta incursions into the story (courtesy mainly of Adam Driver, who worked with Jarmusch on the acclaimed Paterson) fall flat, as do most of the other jokes. Even the more humorous entries in the zombie genre, like George A. Romero’s Dawn of the Dead and Edgar Wright’s Shaun of the Dead, have an urgency and existential sense of dread that this lacks.
The result is a movie with nothing to say about its genre or its characters, coupled with a cast that just seems to drift along and make it up as they go. Driver and Bill Murray play the deputy and sheriff, respectively, of Centreville, Pennsylvania, a generic small town where the biggest problem seems to be the scary-but-wise vagrant (Jarmusch regular Tom Waits) living in the woods who is the most prepared for the decimation to come.
The first hint of trouble comes from stock redneck Farmer Miller (Steve Buscemi in a thankless role with a “MAKE AMERICA WHITE AGAIN” hat stuck on his head), who complains about missing chickens and has blamed Waits for it. But Murray’s Sheriff Cliff Robertson and Driver’s Officer Ronnie Peterson also notice that it’s 8pm and the sun hasn’t set, while Peterson’s watch and cellphone are not working. Cue a report on the radio about polar fracking, followed by a song called (haha) “The Dead Don’t Die.” “Why does this sound familiar?” asks Murray. “Probably because it’s the theme song,” deadpans Driver.
The rest of the movie involves Murray and Driver, along with third office Chloe Sevigny, investigating an increasing string of gruesome murders mostly by standing around. Iggy Pop and Carol Kane turn up as celebrity zombies, which is supposed to make us laugh just by their presence. Other guest stars–Selena Gomez, Caleb Landry Jones, RZA, Danny Glover, indie horror stalwart Larry Fessenden, and Rosie Perez–all wander in and out, while Tilda Swinton plays the character that Jarmusch must have felt she was always born to portray: a Scottish mortician and samurai who excels at decapitations and holds a few secrets of her own.
The gold standard of zom-com movies is still Shaun of the Dead, which had plenty to say about British middle class complacency while making us care deeply about its rather dim but endearing characters. Jarmusch doesn’t seem to care about anyone here, and only Driver really seems to give a bit of humanity to his small town cop. But even he succumbs to the malaise with his constant refrain of “This isn’t gonna end well.” When asked why he keeps saying that, Driver responds, “Because I’ve read the script.”
We have to wonder though if that was only after he’d already signed on, because what that screenplay produces on screen is not fun, although the set itself might have been a blast with all the cool players waltzing around. But this time out, even the hipness factor of being in a Jim Jarmusch movie seems to have overwhelmed everyone, including Jarmusch himself. The most intertextual thing about The Dead Don’t Die is that the movie is as zombified as its title monsters.
The Dead Don’t Die is out in theaters now.
Don Kaye is a Los Angeles-based entertainment journalist and associate editor of Den of Geek. Other current and past outlets include Syfy, United Stations Radio Networks, Fandango, MSN, RollingStone.com and many more. Read more of his work here. Follow him on Twitter @donkaye