The Dead Don't Die

The Dead Don't Die ★★★½

I was not surprised to learn early on in The Dead Don't Die, celebrated writer/director Jim Jarmusch's unconventional zombie comedy, that the story is set in Pennsylvania. Where else but the setting of so many films from legendary horror master George Romero, who basically invented the modern zombie movie with 1968's seminal Night of the Living Dead, to set a film that both indulges in and pokes fun at the genre. The story immediately feels familiar as we follow bumbling buddy cops Ronnie (Adam Driver) and Cliff (Bill Murray) confronting a looming environmental crisis that is bringing the dead back to life, like Michael Jackson's Thriller but with less dancing. Having survived the onslaught of zombie pop culture saturation brought on nearly a decade ago with The Walking Dead and all the subsequent parodies that have followed (from forgettable multiplex fare like Zombieland to a hilarious Dave Chappelle skit on SNL), the tongue-in-cheek humor of The Dead Don't Die already feels a little behind the zeitgeist. I mention this because it speaks to the talent of Jarmusch and his first-rate cast that they're able to draw so many laughs out of subject matter that has previously been done to death (no pun intended.)

Despite the horror-comedy genre being a big departure from the early low-budget character studies that Jarmusch made his name with, it's surprising as The Dead Don't Die unfolds to find it's not entirely dissimilar to his early triumphs Down By Law and Stranger Than Paradise. It's a straightforward story that is carried by an ensemble cast, and it could be debated that aside from the reanimation of some corpses there's not much of note that happens throughout. Just like its undead subjects, The Dead Don't Die could be described as a film that staggers forward from one joke to the next like an episodic yarn. This directionless nature might bother some, but it serves the atmosphere Jarmusch and his cast have created, which is that of a strange, tonally spooky comedy that sits snuggly between metahumor and self-awareness.

This may grate on some, but one can't deny the combined talent of the cast Jarmusch has assembled for The Dead Don't Die. There's cameos from Jarmusch icons Iggy Pop and Ester Balint, as well as an entertaining turn from regular collaborator RZA as a hilarious but underused "Wu-PS" delivery man. The legendary Tom Waits, one of Jarmusch's favorites, also is present as a forest-dwelling homeless man literally named Hermit, who serves as the story's occasional narrator and greek chorus. This is probably Jarmusch's most accessible film, one senses the stalwart of America's independent film movement had a good laugh watching enormusly popular fare like The Walking Dead and 28 Days Later take itself far too seriously, and relished the opportunity to take aim at them. This is most apparent in Driver's character, a riff on the earnest small town sheriff who feels directly inspired by The Walking Dead, especially in latter scenes as he brandishes a machete and slings end-of-the-world prophecies.

Despite this, I can't help but wish The Dead Don't Die had a little more, excuse me, bite to it. In particular, I found some of Jarmusch's satirical observations about consumer capitalism in the context of a zombie infestation to be especially well-trodden and unoriginal, while some also might say the humor begins to wear out its welcome by the third act. With 20 minutes shaved off its runtime and a little sharper focus on theme, I could see The Dead Don't Die developing a similar cult following as Shaun of the Dead. As it stands, it's ultimately an entertaining-if-slight genre exercise that should unite two seemingly disparate kinds of filmgoers, that being horror fans and Jarmusch admirers, so hey, count me onboard.

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