I had been waiting for this movie for such a long time! I entered the cinema with my extremely high expectations for The Dead Don’t Die by Jim Jarmusch. I must admit that these expectations were somewhat reduced because I read a number of unflattering reviews published in the blogosphere in these weeks, but anyway, I said to myself, it’s Jim Jarmusch, he no longer enjoys the unconditional appreciation he had during his golden age, that is the decade that began in the late 1980s with Down By Law (1986).
By now I should know that expectations must be kept at bay. In fact, although I liked the film, I certainly don’t think that it’s a cinematic masterpiece, even if I count myself among the estimators of Jarmusch’s movies and I always enjoy a good zombie movie!
Let’s start with the plot. In the town of Centerville (population: 738), the police force consists of three agents: Cliff Robertson (Bill Murray), Ronnie Peterson (Adam Driver), and Mindy Morrison (Chloë Sevigny). And the answer to your question is yes, the names of the characters in this film are supposed to make you laugh and in this case they all rhyme. All of a sudden, here comes the most classic of the zombie outbreaks, and the three must face it together with the friendly inhabitants of the city. Among them, and this goes to show the impressive cast of this film, you can find: the right-wing farmer Frank Miller (I’ve already clarified that thing about the names, right?) played by Steve Buscemi, the good Hank (Danny Glover), the nerd Bobby (Caleb Landry Jones), the hotel owner Danny Perkins (played by horror director Larry Fassenden – Anthony Perkins worked in the Bates Motel in Psycho), Zelda Winston (that is Tilda Swinton)…
The film follows the classic structure of a zombie movie with besieged people struggling to survive and conveys the classic messages of a zombie movie like Dawn Of The Dead (1978) against unbridled consumerism and shows us all the things that make us zombies even before our death, or non-death in this case. There’s nothing wrong with this, in the end it’s the same thing that Edgar Wright did with his Shaun Of The Dead (2004). The problem is that Jarmusch does it in a very didactic way, so everything feels a bit out of time.
Let me explain. Throughout the film, various characters do nothing but explain to the viewer what’s going on. Hermit Bob (played by the usual Tom Waits who has already collaborated with Jarmusch in Down By Law, Mystery Train, Coffe And Cigarettes…) comments out loud the scenes of the movie that he watches through his binoculars. The reformatory kids comment the news on TV. And Ronnie does it as well since he knows everything because, he says, he read the script. And I get the director’s message about those marginalized by society who’re the only ones to realize what’s happening and about the children being our only hope for the future because they are able to see the facts clearly. I also understand that the alienation of the characters who are aware of being in a movie is the card played by Jarmusch to tell the viewer that he knows that the genre doesn’t have much else to say, and therefore it’s better to clarify that everything’s a metaphor without pretending to take it seriously. I understand all this, but I find it redundant, almost naive. If the film had come out fifteen years ago, it probably would have impressed me much more, but now, in 2019, honestly… I wasn’t impressed at all.
By this I don’t mean that I didn’t enjoy watching the movie. I enjoyed getting all the references to Romero’s Night Of The Living Dead (1968), John Carpenter’s Halloween (1978) and The Thing (1982), for example! I also liked the self-reference to Down By Law, with the two friends of Zoe (Selena Gomez) who are called Zack and Jack like the characters of Tom Waits and John Lurie in the 1986 film directed by Jarmusch himself! It just wasn’t enough to make me REALLY happy about the movie, that’s all.
As for the rest, there are many positive elements of the film. The cast is incredible, even if not all actors are unforgettable (poor Danny Glover is too old for this shit, literally); Jarmusch’s direction is now impeccable, as is to be expected after a 40 years-long career; the surreal dialogues are always fun; and the underlying messages, although not too innovative, are absolutely acceptable. I also believe that we should stop behaving like zombies, that we should stop destroying our planet, and that individuals on the fringes of society are probably the most creative ones and, according to Jarmusch, deserve to be saved (the hermit, the children in the reformatory, and the alien, that is the Scottish Zelda Swinton). The latter point in particular is something that Jarmusch has always endorsed with his movies. Even the soundtrack is perfect for the film, with the country theme by Sturgill Simpson (who also appears as a zombie obsessed with the guitar) being very catchy.
Do you have enough of my complaints? Well, I have a last one, and brace yourself, it’s a heavy one. In a zombie movie, I want to see blood. Maybe I’m a basic guy, but it’s one of the fundamental characteristics of the genre, think about Romero, O’Bannon, or even Fleischer. In The Dead Don’t Die, after the first attack of the zombies Iggy Pop and Sara Driver, it seems that Jarmusch decided to have blood in his movie! But… as soon as Ronnie kills the first zombie it’s clear that there will be no blood after all: the wounded zombies lose nothing but ashes and dust when their heads explode or are severed from the body. And I get it, ash to ash, dust to dust, to dust we shall return, I get it (also because Tom Waits explicitly says so in his commentary track of the film), but I don’t like it.
In short, the film is well done technically, has an exceptional cast, has shareable messages, but I found it a bit naive, too didactic and unoriginal, which is a non-negligible shortcoming in a genre that probably has already said all it had to say a long time ago. Ciao!
- The movie trailer on Youtube
- The movie page on Internet Movie DataBase
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