Jim Jarmusch’s The Dead Don’t Die is a zombie movie for people who just want to chill out for a bit. Entering the fray as the 2010’s undead craze starts to crawl into the grave, it rolls its eyes at the prospect of outmatching the intensity of The Walking Dead or the madcap mayhem of Zombieland. It wants us to relax at the prospect of doomsday. Oil fracking has already thrown the Earth off its axis and risen the dead, so there’s really nothing we can do about it.
We find ourselves in Centerville, a town in nowhere U.S.A. with barely enough people to run a diner. Officers Cliff Robertson (Bill Murray) and Ronnie Peterson (Adam Driver) find themselves stuck with very little crime to fight, instead concerning themselves with when their next coffee/donut run will be. When the aforementioned disaster happens, it takes quite a while for the townsfolk to process exactly what’s happening. After all, these things usually happen to the hipsters in the big cities.
Jarmusch is charmingly uninterested in the excess that comes with the typical zombie comedy. His film takes its sweet time getting to the horror shenanigans, instead opting to introduce us to our characters and relax with them for a bit. We meet city slicking teenagers, a racist farmer (Steve Buscemi), a kindly mailman (Danny Glover), and a shy comic book store clerk (Caleb Landry Jones). While all of their storylines do eventually circle back to the zombies, many of them are just going about their day. Sure, they’ve heard the news that the world is ending but so far, the only thing that’s changed is that the sun won’t seem to go down. Unfortunately, Jarmusch never finds a satisfying place to put all of these characters. Many of them never interact, so we never arrive at the ‘battle of the classes’ tension that makes for the best zombie stories. I’d say they’re cannon fodder, but many of them don’t even die on screen.
Thankfully, the film comes alive whenever Driver and Murray are center stage, giving us a dynamic that is rich in its utter plainness. They are glorified security guards with nowhere to go but down the street. While they’re certainly not excited that people around town are getting mauled by the undead, at least it’s…something. Driver gets a particular kick out of this, with his nihilistic worldview and knowledge of zombie movies becoming the film’s guiding voice. Meanwhile, Tilda Swinton spices things up as a reclusive undertaker who…wouldn’t you know it…is fantastic at putting people back in their graves. She bounces off of Murray and Driver brilliantly, but is regretfully sidelined in favor of Chloë Sevigny’s Mindy, the only character who is actively (and rather annoyingly) freaked out by the zombies.
While the film only occasionally indulges in full on zombie hunting action sequences, Jarmusch’s undead are a lot of fun. They’re not particularly decrepit and don’t bleed nearly as much as you’d expect. They’re drawn to what they love most, weather that be tools at the hardware store or a bottle of chardonnay. They’re not threatening until you underestimate them, with a couple of brutal kills reminding us that our characters are in fact in real danger.
Everything here is very quaint. An experiment in minimalism with a genre that actively fights it. It works, until Jarmusch starts overthinking it. There’s a bizarre reveal in third act that is supposed to act as a meta unpacking of the entire film thus far and it doesn’t land at all. In fact, it cloyingly relies on the audience knowing who the people involved with the film are to even remotely make sense, and even then it leads nowhere. It’s a bland shot of false intellectualism that undermines a story that should’ve committed to its genuinely intelligent insights.
Even when it’s falling short of its potential, The Dead Don’t Die is oddly adorable for a zombie film. Jarmusch’s ‘ just another day in nowhere’ spin on the genre gives him a lot of room to play, and he uses just enough of it. Unfortunately, in an effort to not fall into cliches, he avoids aspects of the story that would make it more conventionally satisfying and cracks his legs as he tries to stand on his own two feet. It’s certainly going to anger those going in for a bawdy gore fest. However, if you want a few zombies to go along with your most cozy blanket and Sunday cup of tea, then crank up the Sturgill Simpson and give it a whirl.