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The Dead Don't Die Movie Review

The Dead Don't Die (2019) movie poster The Dead Don't Die

Theatrical Release: June 14, 2019 / Running Time: 104 Minutes / Rating: R

Writer/Director: Jim Jarmusch

Cast: Bill Murray (Cliff Robertson), Adam Driver (Ronnie Peterson), Tilda Swinton (Zelda Winston), Chlo Sevigny (Mindy Morrison), Steve Buscemi (Farmer Miller), Danny Glover (Hank Thompson), Caleb Landry Jones (Bobby Wiggins), Rosie Perez (Posie Juarez), Iggy Pop (Coffee Zombie), Sara Driver (Coffee Zombie), RZA (Dean), Carol Kane (Mallory O'Brien), Austin Butler (Jack), Luke Sabbat (Zach), Selena Gomez (Zoe), Sturgill Simpson (Zombie), Maya Delmont (Stella), Taliyah Whitaker (Olivia), Jahi Winston (Geronimo), Tom Waits (Hermit Bob)


In his nearly forty years of making movies, writer-director Jim Jarmusch has never made something that could be considered "mainstream." It can easily be argued that The Dead Don't Die is his closest to such a thing to date,
a claim that would be supported by the fact that this vampire horror-comedy flick opens today in more theaters than any of his previous films has ever played in at once.

Dead rounds up esteemed actors Jarmusch has worked with before, including Bill Murray, the star of Jarmusch's biggest hit (2005's Broken Flowers), and Adam Driver, star of the director's acclaimed most recent film (2016's Paterson). The two play police officers in the sleepy Middle American small town of Centerville, population 738. The film opens with Chief Cliff Robertson (Murray) and dutiful young officer Ronnie Peterson (Driver) confronting the town weirdo, Hermit Bob (Tom Waits), over an accusation of chicken theft. Bob is hostile and fires shots at them, but the officers are unfazed by what appears to be the height of Centerville crime.

While patroling the neighborhood, Cliff and Ronnie notice the sun hasn't set yet, even though it should have. Some are theorizing that polar fracking has led the earth's axis to fall out of alignment. Even if you don't know what you've signed up for, you know something ominous is afoot in Centerville. Sure enough, after the sun finally does set, two corpses burst out of their graves and hit up the only diner in town, quickly disemboweling and nibbling on the two diner workers there.

Bill Murray, Chlo Sevigny, and Adam Driver play police officers in a small town shook by zombies in Jim Jarmusch's "The Dead Don't Die."

It would appear to be the most grisly thing that's ever happened in Centerville. Cliff, Ronnie, and fellow officer Mindy Morrison (Chlo Sevigny) are all shook by the brutal crime scene. They speculate it could be the work of several wild animals, but Ronnie hypothesizes -- correctly, we know -- that it could be zombies.

Yes, a zombie apocalypse is upon Centerville. In addition to the three police officers, our attentions also fall upon comic book-loving gas station clerk Bobby Wiggins (Caleb Landry Jones), old hardware shop employee Hank (Danny Glover), a group of juvenile delinquents, and the eccentric new Scottish undertaker Zelda Winston (Tilda Swinton), who spends most of her time practicing her sword skills. There's also a trio of young "hipsters" (the most focal of whom is played by Selena Gomez) who get a room at a motel on a break from their road trip.

Jarmusch has one of the more interesting careers of active filmmakers. Like I said earlier, he's been making movies since the early 1980s. He does so on a regular basis, with hardly any years off. And yet, his movies have always been on his own terms. He's never filmed someone else's screenplay, nor written anything for someone else to make. He's attracted respected, in-demand actors again and again, from Winona Ryder in 1991's Night on Earth to Johnny Depp in 1996's Dead Man to the ones he reunites with here. The films are usually well-reviewed, but they're seen in theaters by usually just thousands of people. Broken Flowers, the 134th highest-grossing release of 2005, is estimated to have sold a little over two million tickets. Jarmusch is a fixture at Cannes (where Dead premiered a few weeks ago as the opening night selection) and has been nominated for six Independent Spirit Awards. But outside of actors who make movies for a living and critics who write about movies for a living, his name and oeuvre do not seem very well-known.

Tilda Swinton plays Zelda Winston, Centerville's new Scottish undertaker who's handy with a sword and secretly an alien.

Dead is unlikely to change that, despite its 613-theater count (which narrowly qualifies it as a "wide" release) and the abundance of established names on board, which the marketing declares "the greatest zombie cast ever disassembled."
The film is sure to disappoint someone expecting a genuine zombie thriller. And it may confuse or annoy someone expecting a hearty comedy on the order of Zombieland and Shaun of the Dead. But if you know what you're getting into, you should be able to find the film a good deal of fun as I did.

There isn't anything that Murray can't make entertaining (well, except, Rock the Kasbah). He is top-billed here and still you kind of wish he had more to do. But the humor is dry and understated, just the way that Murray and Jarmusch like it on their collaborations, which also include the black and white shorts anthology Coffee and Cigarettes. I don't know where Jarmusch gets the money to make his films with the creative control he seems to enjoy and how anyone gets paid to act in them, but he has certainly won admirers and deservingly so on his generally appealing, offbeat human works.

Dead Don't Die gets more political than some would like, with its polar fracking subplot and a farmer played by Steve Buscemi who wears a "Keep America White Again" hat. You'd think an artist who already occupies such a niche in show business wouldn't want to risk ostracizing some potential viewers, but I'm guessing there isn't a huge overlap between sensitive, humorless conservatives and Jarmusch aficionados.

The movie is unsettling at times, but mostly it's just goofy. It's a send-up of conventional small town horror flicks that doesn't have much commentary or criticism to level at the genre. it's decidedly not a parody, even as it repeatedly breaks the fourth wall with characters commenting upon the theme song sung by Sturgill Simpson as a running gag. The climax takes the meta angle even further and maybe some will feel like it's a cop-out, but it's also the biggest laugh in the movie. (The second biggest may be having Murray's Coffee and Cigarettes co-star, Wu-Tang Clan icon RZA play a sage delivery man for a shipping service called Wu-PS.) There's a little bit of social commentary in the depiction of the zombies, who each voice one word obsessively ("coffee", "Chardonnay", "Bluetooth", etc.), pointing out the dependency we have on various things for our contentment. That's as deep as it gets, though.

While critics have not been enamored with this and the general public will probably be even less impressed (and certainly less interested), I found much more to enjoy in this effort than Jarmusch's previous take on the macabre, his dull, pretentious vampire flick Only Lovers Left Alive.

Related Reviews:
Written and Directed by Jim Jarmusch: Only Lovers Left Alive Coffee and Cigarettes Dead Man Down by Law
Now in Theaters: The Souvenir Men in Black International Photograph Late Night
Zombieland Warm Bodies Fright Night (2011)

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Reviewed June 14, 2019.

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