In the peaceful midwestern town of Centerville, the dead have risen from their graves as a result of polar fracking. The only barrier between the town’s quiet contentment and utter chaos is the thin blue line of Chief Cliff Robertson (Bill Murray) and Officer Ronnie Peterson (Adam Driver), and neither initially appears up for the job.
There’s something off-centre about Jim Jarmusch’s latest offering, The Dead Don’t Die, and it’s not just because the undead is walking like a plague through town. It’s hard to pin down at first, particularly during the decent opening scene between Robertson, Peterson and the non-law-abiding Hermit Bill (Tom Waits). It’s a fun scene that perfectly sets up Murray and Driver’s characters, as the former patiently explains to Hermit Bill that shooting at an officer of the law is, well, it’s kind of against the law. Explained, really patiently. No one rushes their dialogue here, and it suits the laidback atmosphere of a town under no duress.
Blame certainly can’t be thrown at the casting either. It’s pretty well stacked; a veritable buffet of Jarmusch alumni including Iggy Pop, Tilda Swinton and RZA. It’s Swinton who shines the most as a Scottish mortician with an affinity for samurai swords and 80s themed mortuary make up. So, what is it that makes The Dead Don’t Die so hard to stomach by the time the end credits roll?
Well, firstly, there’s the languid pacing and stilted delivery that runs throughout the film – zombie apocalypse and everything. It’s a clear and deliberate choice made by Jarmusch that, yes, can be found throughout his catalogue. That doesn’t mean it has to work all the time. Jokes, of which there are several, some that actually work, fall flat because our cast recites them to each other with enough dead air for a laugh track to be added in later. It’s distracting and made this critic want to go home and watch Heart of Glass which, with its tales of director Werner Herzog hypnotising his cast, at least had an excuse for the way its cast enunciated.
Then there’s the heavy-handed social commentary, which suggests that hey, you know what? With all our materialistic needs distracting us from what’s happening to the planet, maybe we’re the real zombies after all, man. Dawn of the Dead didn’t need Tom Wait’s one-man Greek chorus to summarise the movie’s themes, and it’s certainly not needed here. When Jarmusch’s zombies are shown walking down the street, clutching their smartphones and groaning for Wi-Fi, all subtlety has long since departed.
After all this, there’s the final realisation that what we’re watching is basically a spoof movie for the arthouse demographic. We’re not talking classics like Naked Gun or Airplane! (AKA Flying High), we’re talking Scary Movie Parts 1 through to 5. Jarmusch actually allows his characters to stop the film so they can argue over the film’s script, badmouth improvisation and even point out when they can hear the movie’s theme tune. It just simply does not work. It just feels smug and self-satisfying. My ribs are bruised from all the nudging Jim gave them.
Jarmusch clearly had a whale of a time writing and directing this, and there’s the strong possibility that The Dead Don’t Die will continue to separate audiences before finding its place on home release and VOD. Currently, however, coming after the double KO of Paterson and Only Lovers Left Alive, The Dead Don’t Die leaves a bitter taste in the mouth. You’ll want to have as much fun as everyone did on screen, and that’s the crying shame.
SCREEN REALM SCORE: ★★☆☆☆
‘The Dead Don’t Die’ opens in Australian cinemas on September 26 and hit the US on June 14.