Karlovy Vary 2019 Review: ‘The Dead Don’t Die’ an amusingly droll Jarmusch zombie flick
A droll Jim Jarmusch zombie movie that delivers pretty much exactly what you’d expect from a Jim Jarmusch zombie movie, The Dead Don’t Die opened to some pretty chilly reviews upon its US release earlier this month but was warmly received during a recent screening at this year’s Karlovy Vary International Film Festival.
Don’t let the cool reception turn you off: while The Dead Don’t Die never quite reaches the highs of the best Jarmusch films, it slides in nicely into the filmmakers’ eclectic oeuvre, and never gets as draggy as some of his more patience-testing affairs (The Limits of Control). Fans of the director should find this right up their alley.
Of course, general audiences expecting anything in the realm of a traditional horror movie or comedy would be best advised to stay away.
In The Dead Don’t Die, Bill Murray and Adam Driver star as small-town cops Cliff Robertson and Ronnie Peterson, respectively, who barely bat an eye when the local hermit (Tom Waits) fires a shot at them in the film’s opening sequence. The incoming zombie apocalypse - a result of “polar fracking” causing the Earth to spin of its axis, TV news reports tell us - generates only slightly more mild interest from the pair.
As Cliff and Ronnie investigate a brutal attack at a diner that has resulted in two partially eaten corpses (Iggy Pop amusingly cameos as one of the undead attackers), Driver’s Ronnie is quick to identify zombies as the culprit. He seems to know a lot more about what’s in store than the other characters, including fellow officer Mindy Morrison (Chloë Sevigny) for reasons that become increasingly amusing as the film goes on.
“Why is this song so familiar?” Murray’s Cliff asks his partner as Sturgill Simpson’s The Dead Don’t Die comes on over the radio.
“Oh, that’s because it’s the theme song,” Ronnie helpfully replies.
Murray and Driver played the protagonists of two of Jarmusch’s very best movies - Broken Flowers and Paterson, respectively - and they’re the very best thing that The Dead Don’t Die has going for it. As each competes to out-deadpan the other (Driver wins in that regard, by the way) the two characters build up an engaging rapport and kinda-sorta almost make you care about them.
Of course, this is a zombie horror film that needs to up the body count, and The Dead Don’t Die accomplishes that by featuring a plethora of wonderful character actors in minor roles that don’t add a whole lot to the overall story.
Besides Waits, whose hermit Bob represents something of a Greek chorus, there’s also Caleb Landry Jones as a sensitive local gas station attendant and horror movie expert, and Danny Glover as a local merchant; the two barricade themselves in a hardware store to ward off the zombie attack. Steve Buscemi also shows up as a local farmer sporting a “Make America White Again” cap.
A trio of youths (Maya Delmont, Taliyah Whitaker, and Jahi Di'Allo Winston) witness the undead overtake their boarding home, while a trio of older kids (Selena Gomez, Austin Butler, and Luka Sabbat) make the unfortunate decision to stop in town for the night at a hotel managed by low-budget horror movie icon Larry Fessenden.
And then there’s Tilda Swinton, boasting a thick Scottish brogue, as the local moritican who also happens to be an expert katana-swinger (shades of The Walking Dead’s Michonne) who makes for a prime zombie slayer.
Each of these characters gets their own independent little storyline, but few generate anything above mild amusement; I often found myself wishing The Dead Don’t Die stuck with the Murray-Driver scenes, and featured the other players as supporting cast only in the tertiary.
Still, The Dead Don’t Die is a genuinely funny, surprisingly gory little romp (the zombie makeup effects are excellent, though the action CGI could use some work) that delivers on its own terms. Jarmusch fans as well as old horror aficionados will find a lot to like here, even when the narrative turns as sluggish as the undead.