The idea of zombies has become one of the most overused and famous clichés in all of horror. From the origin of the cinematic zombie as we know it in “Night of the Living Dead” to the phenomenon that is…or was “The Walking Dead” the zombie has been a staple of horror entertainment for over 50 years. Many filmmakers and storytellers have tried to put new spins on these legendary monsters. Some have succeeded and others have failed miserably but most seem to take the route of paying homage to the legacy of these undead creatures while also providing something relatively new. That’s essentially the idea behind notable independent filmmaker Jim Jarmusch’s latest film “The Dead Don’t Die” which has become the director’s most widely released movie to date. While it has flown under the radar of mainstream audiences due to its rather limited release, “The Dead Don’t Die” has become an interestingly divisive film with some critics calling it an underappreciated work of cinematic art while others have labeled it an unfunny mess. The reviews fascinated me and left me curious as to how the final product really plays out on screen. I decided to take a look for myself and see how “The Dead Don’t Die” stacks up in relation to other zombie features while also critiquing it on its own merit. So, without further ado this is my review of “The Dead Don’t Die”.
“The Dead Don’t Die” takes place in the small town of Centerville in the not so distant future where polar fracking has caused the Earth to veer off of its axis, creating disruptions in the length of daylight and causing electronics to short out unexpectedly. As it so happens this also creates a side effect where the dead begin to rise and feast on the flesh of the living. The story follows several groups of people who try to navigate this zombie infestation including the main trio, Chief Cliff Robertson (Bill Murray), Officer Ronnie Peterson (Adam Driver) and Officer Mindy Morrison (Chloë Sevigny). Other survivors include a group of young juveniles hiding from the zombies attacking a prison, a film buff named Bobby Wiggins (Caleb Landry Jones) trying to defend a hardware store with the store’s owner Hank Thompson (Danny Glover), a racist named Farmer Miller (Steve Buscemi), an eccentric, sword-wielding undertaker named Zelda (Tilda Swinton), and a trio of hipsters led by a girl named Zoe (Selena Gomez). Meanwhile, a local hermit named Bob (Tom Waits) looks on exploring the irony of the apocalyptic events taking place.
Alright so…right out of the box I will admit this is NOT a film for the faint of heart or anyone looking for a simple experience. It’s most certainly not a film for anyone expecting to be spoon fed and I think that’s what I love about it. Walking out the theater I had no idea what to make of some aspects of the film and I usually tend to enjoy that. Looking back a couple years that same reaction is what left me so fascinated with “Mother!” while others were bashing it as a pretentious mess. “The Dead Don’t Die” is a cluster of fun callbacks, themes, and concepts that seem like they don’t match but I don’t know if they were necessarily meant to. I think one of the biggest gripes a lot of people have with this film is how slowly paced and random it tends to be, often for seemingly no real reason other than to be odd. While I will admit that the pacing created some difficulty for me looking back I think that was the point and again that’s what makes it so fascinating. Let me explain…
“The Dead Don’t Die” could have easily been a simple, star-studded zombie flick that sticks to convention and gives us the blood and gore we always enjoy from the genre. But it’s not. I mean not exactly anyway. Like many other zombie movies it pays homage to its predecessors, but it knows it’s doing it. It fully embraces its status as a parody of and tribute to zombie movies with throwbacks galore but still manages to establish its own personality and identity. It even adds to the zombie lore in its own way with a really cool idea of having the zombies be drawn towards things they cherished in real life like phones and coffee. This change to the mythos adds to the social satire that zombies once represented by literally making people zombies to their own obsessions, mindlessly in search of new addictions. I’ll admit this concept isn’t fully explored to the lengths it should have been, but, like many great arthouse pictures, ‘The Dead Don’t Die” leaves open room for interpretation by giving us details we really need and refusing to close holes where new ideas could be explored. It’s not supposed to be easy or always make sense. While it can be frustrating for those looking for an all-out bloodbath if you appreciate it for what it is the ambiguity is part of this movie’s charm.
But it’s not just the zombie references that make this an awesome viewing experience. “The Dead Don’t Die” seems to refuse to conform to one approach to storytelling. What do you do when you can’t decide which direction you want the film to go? You send it in all different directions of course! A lot of films lose their way trying to do and be too much at once. “The Dead Don’t Die” takes that common mistake and embraces it, doubling down on it and thus actually making it part of the narrative. From fabulous fourth wall breaks to out-of-nowhere plot twists, dead-end storylines and the endless Easter eggs “The Dead Don’t Die” kept me intrigued and engaged throughout pretty much the whole experience just trying to catch everything it was throwing at me. But this does create something of a problem when it comes to tone. “The Dead Don’t Die” is a chaotic, often random experience which in turn makes it hard to get a beat on exactly what it’s trying to be because it’s trying to be so many different things at once. It’s a self-referential comedy, zombie horror, arthouse film, and B-movie throwback all in one. These styles don’t always merge well, but when they do it’s downright fascinating. When they don’t it feels delightfully chaotic. While that may be too much for some people and will certainly bring about reactions of “I don’t get it”, for those who do get it “The Dead Don’t Die” serves as an excellent example of chaotic storytelling done right.
The added beauty is that the actors involved all act like they know exactly what they’re doing, like they’re in on a spectacular joke that the audience has yet to understand. The all-star cast includes the like of Bill Murray, Adam Driver, Tilda Swinton, Chloë Sevigny, Steve Buscemi, Danny Glover, Caleb Landry Jones and a slew of cameos with pretty much everyone taking this film so much more seriously than the audience. The dry humor, repetition of seemingly dead jokes (because it’s a movie about zombies, get it) and the awkward banter between characters are all fitting for the mix of tones and oddball storytelling that come together to bring this film to life. The rotating door of guest stars plays into the chaotic nature of the apocalyptic reality. Anyone could be a victim, and anyone could be a hero whether they are a big or small name. Combine this with excellent if derivative cinematography and a musical score reminiscent of the greatest horror features of both today and yesterday and “The Dead Don’t Die” earns its place among the more underappreciated genre pieces of the last few years. Look at some of the greatest horror movies last year. “Mandy” and “Hereditary” were both highly praised and yet neither were straight forward. Both incorporated strange and, at times, confusing concepts and patient approaches to storytelling and yet they get the glory of being considered modern gems. So why not “The Dead Don’t Die”? In my opinion, this zombie horror comedy is comparable if not on par with these other artistic wonders from a genre that continues to evolve and explore new ground year after year. It defies convention, it challenges the viewer’s patience and willingness to dig into what it has to say, and most of all it’s fun in its own special way. If you don’t get it, that’s the point. it wants you to be confused, it wants you to dig a little deeper, and most of all it wants you to be uncomfortable because that’s how the reality it depicts is meant to feel, uneven and uncomfortable.
“The Dead Don’t Die” is not for everyone and I can understand why many people are hating the film. But for me, it serves as a hilarious, self-aware, and worthy addition to the zombie subgenre mixing odd and dry humor with some fun gore and even adding some new elements to the modern zombie as we know it. Probably my biggest gripe with it is the fact that maybe it doesn’t go far enough with some of its ideas and it is hard to determine what is left ambiguous or unresolved for the sake of art and what’s just an unfinished part of the story. But part of the beauty of this picture is that it’s so hard to tell when something is genuinely a problem and when it’s all part of the experience. The very nature of the film brilliantly allows for any flaw to be seen as just another part of its format. “The Dead Don’t Die” can be a frustrating film, but it’s built to irritate you and make you ponder what it’s trying to do which for me is part of the fun. From the humor to the horror gore to the more subtle social commentary mixed in, as well as the countless references and Easter eggs parodying and honoring the genre, there’s just so much I loved about “The Dead Don’t Die” that it’s truly hard for me not to give it a great score. If you get the chance to experience it for yourself I highly recommend it.