The Dead Don't Die is so deadpan it could be the first film suffering from negative affect.
Anyone familiar with the work of Jim Jarmusch (which ranges from the mystical Western Dead Man to the comedic anthology Coffee and Cigarettes) knows that the auteur is too quirky and eccentric to deliver a straight-up genre piece. Consequently, his latest effort, The Dead Don't Die, is neither a zombie movie nor a spoof of a zombie movie; it's a "Jim Jarmusch Film" through and through, with all that implies, particularly the patented blase approach to outrageous plot developments, which affects not only the characters and performances but also the very fabric of the film itself, creating a weird disconnect between action and reaction to dryly comic effect. Not all the jokes land; in fact, not all the laugh-lines can properly be termed "jokes," but the deadpan approach is so relentless maintained that The Dead Don't Die comes across like the first film ever suffering from negative affect.
Events take place in the small town of Centerville, whose name itself is something of a joke, since this is a film about a world knocked off-center by arctic fracking, creating weird anomalies: stopped watches, skewed hours of daylight, and of course the rise of the living dead.
Not that they're in a particular hurry to crawl from their graves. Jarmusch takes his time - too much time - lingering on the characters as they go through their daily routine, noting but not particularly reacting to the perturbing omens. Ant colonies are hyperactive. Pets and farm animals are fleeing their homes. "The Dead Don't Die" seems to be the only song playing on the radio. The narrative strategy is one of gradual accumulation of detail that eventually delivers a satisfying payoff at the end, but it does try audience patience along the way. (The film's zippy trailer suggests a far perkier movie could have been achieved with tighter editing.)
The focus is mostly on two local cops: Chief Cliff Robertson (Bill Murray) and Officer Ronnie Peterson (Adam Driver), who are initially seen tracking down Hermit Bob (Tom Waits), a crazy old coot living in the woods, who has been accused of stealing a chicken from Farmer Frank Miller (Steve Buscemi), a right-wing nut who wears a "Make America White Again" hat. Peterson sounds like a modern Cassandra, repeatedly warning Robertson (and the audience) that "this isn't going to end well"; however, The Dead Don't Die's true oracle is Bob, who observes events from a distance and provides a running commentary that might be either Jarmusch's message or his spoof of movie messages. In either case, the hermit provides an interesting perspective: the world as most of us know it (civilization, cell phones, etc) may be ending, but he's already abandoned most of that, so why should he care? ("Welcome to my world," he mumbles at one point.)
The most effective humor comes from Jarmusch's patented repetition, which gradually grows funnier with each iteration: in addition to Peterson's dire warnings and the constant replaying of the title song (which everyone seems to know was recorded by Sturgill Simpson, who appears in a cameo as the "Guitar Zombie"), several characters express a verbatim reaction to the aftermath of the zombie carnage, wondering whether the attacker was a wild animal or perhaps several. Less effective though still amusing are the too-on-the-nose political jabs, inside jokes, and meta-humor (Driver's character has a Star Wars key chain, and long before he explains, you'll guess why he knows the film will end badly).
The Dead Don't Die features some well designed and gruesome zombie effects. Like the revenants in Return of the Living Dead, these walkers speak, but instead of moaning for brains, they yearn for what they most desired in life: coffee, WiFi, free cable, fashion, candy. The sly satire is that, outside of eating their victims, they are mindlessly performing the same actions they mindlessly performed while alive, so what's the difference?
Computer-generated effects are variable. Puffs of black dust that accompany each zombie's decapitation are obviously digital, but shots of the full moon are beautifully atmospheric - deliberately surreal in a way that enhances the film's tone. The score - a mix of synthesizer riffs and droning electric guitar - goes a long way toward filling in the film's slower passages.
One final note: The Dead Don't Die's underused secret weapon is Tilda Swinton as the town's new undertaker, Zelda Winston. Because she is Scottish, the townsfolk think her strange, but just how strange they have no idea: not only does she makeup her corpses to resemble Divine, she also handles a samurai sword with a serene grace that makes her the ideal person to survive a zombie apocalypse. Seriously, her zen calm is a match for that of Keanu Reeves - somebody needs to put her in the next John Wick movie.
The Dead Don't Die rating
The coming attractions trailer is far perkier than than the film itself, but at least the long slow buildup yields a satisfying payoff, with some amusing deadpan humor along the way.
The Dead Don’t Die (Focus Features, 2019). Written & Directed by Jim Jarmusch. Bill Murray, Adam Driver, Tom Waits, Chloë Sevigny, Steve Buscemi, Danny Glover, RZA, Larry Fessenden, Rosie Perez, Carol Kane, Tilda Swinton, Iggy Pop, Selena Gomez.