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Review: The Dead Don't Die

by Chris Feil

A few years back, Jim Jarmusch brought fresh life to the oft-revisited vampire genre with the sexy Only Lovers Left Alive. This summer, he attempts to do the same with the tropes of the zombie film in The Dead Don’t Die, drolly taking on our mindnumbed obsessions in the modern dissociative era. Should he take on another monster genre soon - who better to find the poetic ennui of a werewolf, truth be told - then he should hope it results in something more akin to his look at bloodsuckers than that of his flesheaters. The Dead Don’t Die is a smug stinker.

The film is set in Centerville, “A very nice place to live!”, a town small enough to house a single diner for restaurant options and with its gas station pulling double duty as its comic shop. News reports that the Earth has spun off its axis due to polar fracking is met by the townspeople with the mildest sense of alarm, at least as much as they can muster for a world outside that they just cain’t understand. But that small town malaise is devoured once the local cemetery starts sprouting the reanimated dead.

Jarmusch employs a massive ensemble headlined by the cop duo of Adam Driver and Bill Murray, essentially sidelining Chloë Sevigny’s squeamish third wheel officer while the boys figure things out. The likes of Iggy Pop and RZA zigzag in and out of the film like in-jokes, their mere presence meant to elicit laughs in an all too self-aware sense that fills the film into its every corner. As one might expect, Tilda Swinton is an Irish samurai undertaker (and the funniest, sharpest in the ensemble). Meanwhile Tom Waits observes all as an off-the-grid mountain man named Hermit Bob, away from the consumer culture that mobilizes the dead and brainwashes the living.

Though some laughs land, most of what The Dead Don’t Die is serving is rigorously obvious in its conception. Not only is its political insight mired in the most blasé of caricatures (as you can imagine, Steve Buscemi plays a farmer in a “Make America White Again” hat with a dog named Rumsfeld), but it also consistently aims for the easiest gags and stills somehow misses. Jarmusch grafts a comic strip sensibility onto the film that only stays charming until the midpoint of each scene before his tapestry goes tiresome. A gross glibness pervades, as does a sense that the film thinks its smarter than it actually is. It should be fun but its just pretentious, with little insight on how to serve its spry ensemble.

However as a piece of commentary on the pervasive state of genre filmmaking (zombie films being one of the most called out for being self-derivative), Jarmusch is onto something that The Dead Don’t Die fails to fully develop. The film employs repetition in its gags and its tropes to signify our current corporate creative desolation - the same nonsense keeps getting churned out for our unquestioning consumption, both for distraction from the world at large and as a symbol of how we identify ourselves. But Jarmusch muddies the interpretive waters, occasionally straying into the meta to eyeroll effect.

Cloying is the film’s dominant comedic trait, leaving us with something that reeks more of condescension than of wisdom as it cops out on its intentions. If The Dead Don’t Die attempts to critique why we retread familiar narrative terrain, then it stumbles into the most unfamiliar for Jamusch: instead of something to reflect on, he leaves us with something vacuous.

Grade: C-

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Reader Comments (3)

I wanna see this. It's Jim Jarmusch. That's all I have to say. Even if it's middle-of-the-road Jarmusch, I'll still watch it over everything else.

June 13, 2019 | Unregistered Commenterthevoid99

I'm so sad to read this though i suspected as much given the Cannes reception. At least Jarmusch made an excellent vampire feature!

June 13, 2019 | Registered CommenterNATHANIEL R

Besides Tilda being typically Tilda riveting and the ruinous Detroit scenery being well-applied I actually think Only Lovers Left Alive is tremendously overrated, treading a long dead vampirism as drug and vice versa metaphor even deader into the dirty sod. So my hopes for this one have always been a little sketchy! But I'll end up watching it for Tilda - anything for Tilda.

June 14, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterJason

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