Brandon’s Angle: “The Dead Don’t Die”

Illustration by Lindsay Hart

Brandon Shillingford, Contributing Writer

As a pioneer in the independent filmmaking movement of the late 20th century, Jim Jarmusch’s films have always portrayed life as we see it and not as we wish it to be: slow, boring and often disappointing.

He doesn’t try to hide this with snappy dialogue or quick cuts. Jarmusch carries these themes of wading through the mundane into his newest film “The Dead Don’t Die,” a deadpan zombie- comedy — or, maybe, zombedy? — and the film chosen to open Cannes this year. He does this to varying degrees of success; its tonal and pacing issues stop it short of greatness.

But despite its meandering pace, the film is a fun, thoughtful and ultimately rewarding venture from one of cinema’s most gloriously odd auteurs.

In Centerville, a small sleepy town where everyone knows everyone, the dead begin to rise and terrorize the townsfolk. Police chief Cliff Robertson, played by Bill Murray, is joined by his young proteges, Adam Driver’s Ronnie Peterson and Chloe Sevigny’s Mindy Morrison, in an attempt to protect their town from the undead.

The trio is supported by an interesting cast, consisting of Steve Buscemi, RZA, Selena Gomez, Tom Waits and Tilda Swinton, who plays an otherworldly Scottish mortician with a talent for corpse cosmetology and decapitating zombies. In other words, she’s playing Tilda Swinton.

Jarmusch doesn’t waste any time in drawing parallels between crises like Centerville’s undead epidemic to more realistic ones like climate change. With media talking heads debating their purpose and who’s really at fault for the zombie uprising, and a foreboding purple light emanating from the moon signaling impending doom, it’s evident the story he’s most interested in telling is much deeper than what’s on the surface level.

While Jarmusch is clearly a fan of the genre, his effort to maintain a balance between quirky thrills, meta-horror commentary and serious environmental allegory doesn’t hit all the necessary notes.

The film tries, and seldom succeeds, to alternate between being incredibly funny and unbelievably harrowing. The world of “The Dead Don’t Die” is a twisted reality, alternate to our own — a living, breathing nightmare you can never wake up from.

Cliff, Ronnie, Mindy and the people of Centerville have many of the same problems we have — it’s just that they’re being eaten alive because of their inaction. There’s a beautiful and profound irony in the idea that we die and rise out of the same earth we’re killing.

Jarmusch goes great lengths to reprimand not just his characters, but the audience for our part in the world’s problems. There’s a reason Ronnie keeps saying “This isn’t going to end well.” But no matter how many times he says it, no one listens.

Existentialism and examining our effect on others isn’t a new idea in Jarmusch’s filmography. His last two feature films, “Patterson” and “Only Lovers Left Alive,” explored similar feelings of isolation and the futility of life. And while all three of his recent films move slowly, it feels like there’s a purpose to the slog with a satisfying and smart resolution in sight.

Despite its tonal issues, the film’s message is admirable, and performances from Swinton, Buscemi and Driver make it one of Jarmusch’s most entertaining efforts.

Though it doesn’t match the existential bliss of his most recent features, “The Dead Don’t Die” is still a fun zombie film with more than enough brains to spare. Or eat, I won’t judge.

Rating: 3.5/5   

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