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Film Review: “The Dead Don’t Die” but They Do Get Old

Written by: Christopher Llewellyn Reed | June 13th, 2019

Film poster: “The Dead Don’t Die”

The Dead Don’t Die (Jim Jarmusch, 2019) out of 4 stars.

Jim Jarmusch’s latest oddball of a film, The Dead Don’t Die, features the director’s trademark nonchalance and idiosyncratic dialogue, as well as something new (for him): zombies. It’s the apocalypse, and we should all run for our lives … unless we happen to be Bill Murray (St. Vincent) and Adam Driver (BlacKkKlansman), two small-town police officers with ice in their veins, so chill is their vibe as the world comes to an end. Add a dash of metafiction for good measure, and what we have is an intriguing jumble of ideas that never quite comes together in a unified whole, but often engages, nonetheless. At least we have a good chuckle while being disemboweled.

As Driver’s Officer Ronnie Peterson says at the outset, “This isn’t going to end well.” No sir, but at least there’s appealing madness along the way. “Polar fracking” is causing sudden changes in Earth’s axis, resulting in light late at night and darkness at dawn. In addition, the dead are restless, first bursting out of their graves and then taking over Centerville (which looks just like upstate New York, where the movie was shot), eating the living as they go. But not before we make the acquaintance of our ensemble, which beyond the two leads includes Steve Buscemi (Nancy), Danny Glover (Sorry to Brother You), Selena Gomez (Spring Breakers), Caleb Landry Jones (Get Out), RZA, Chloë Sevigny (Lizzie), Tom Waits, and many more, plus the eternally strange Tilda Swinton (Okja), perfectly cast in the role that her ethereal self was born to play. Trading esoteric bon mots while occasionally discussing the structure of the screenplay, itself, our characters are all but pawns in a drama destined to consume them, flesh and all.

Adam Driver and Bill Murray in THE DEAD DON’T DIE ©Focus Features

Unfortunately, as enjoyable as much of this is, at some point the self-referential cleverness – often the main point of a Jarmusch project – gets old. It’s fun to watch (and occasionally gross, since it’s a zombie film, after all), but to what purpose? Sketch-based movies like the director’s 1991 Night on Earth or 2003 Coffee & Cigarettes never overstayed their welcome in any one scene. Here, we’re stuck, as are the two cops, battling the undead to the bitter conclusion, sans escape. The actors make for great company, but as they drop one by one, so does our interest. The Dead Don’t Die is never a complete waste, but as Driver says, it does not end well.

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Christopher Llewellyn Reed is a film critic, filmmaker, and educator. A member of the Washington DC Area Film Critics Association (WAFCA) and a Rotten Tomatoes-approved film critic, he is Managing Editor at Film Festival Today; lead film critic at Hammer to Nail; the host of the award-winning Reel Talk with Christopher Llewellyn Reed, from Dragon Digital Media; and the author of Film Editing: Theory and Practice. In addition, he is one of the cohosts of The Fog of Truth, a podcast devoted to documentary cinema.

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