If deadpan comic Steven Wright appeared in “The Dead Don’t Die” he’d be the most energetic character on screen.
Director Jim Jarmusch’s attempt at a zombie comedy is that droll. It’s also lifeless, stiff and filled with the kind of political commentary that makes an Alex Jones rant sound subtle.
Now, Jarmusch clearly aimed for a sleepy town vibe as his undead landscape. Fine. Now, try some humor beyond clumsy attempts to break the fourth wall.
Deadpan humor is a thing of beauty in the right hands. It has to be smart, original or a cocktail of the two. Zombies notoriously feast on brains, and there’s little evidence of the latter on screen.
We’re dropped into the tiny Eastern town of Centerville where “polar fracking” has turned night into day. That hardly matters to local cops Ronnie Peterson (Adam Driver) and Cliff Robertson (Bill Murray). Nothing ruffles them, but when they find two locals slain in the town diner it does grab their attention.
It’s a zombie outbreak betwixt the fracking fallout, and these cops seem ill-prepared. Perhaps the oddball newcomer (Tilda Swinton) can lend a hand. She’s pretty skilled in swordplay. Or a nerdy Comic-Con type (Caleb Landry Jones) who knows a thing or two about the undead.
Don’t look at Farmer Miller for help, though.
Steve Buscemi plays a MAGA stereotype on steroids, cheerfully sporting a “Make America White Again” hat. Why co-star Danny Glover’s character, who endures his presence at the aforementioned diner, doesn’t knock his teeth out is beyond us.
The film despises the farmer so much it dances a jig over his grisly death. If you need a spoiler alert for that reveal you’ve been living under a rock for the past three years.
Zombie movies give filmmakers the chance to make Important Statements between the flesh chomping. Zombie auteur George A. Romero leaned on that trope expertly, commenting on consumerism and race relations in his early, signature work.
Here? The polemics are so thick my liberal screening partner leaned over to me at one point and whispered, “Want me to explain it to you?”
The finale beats us over the head with that messaging anew. It’s like a first-time filmmaker grasping the do’s and don’ts of storytelling. Sadly, Jarmusch is 66 with more than a dozen well-received films under his directorial belt.
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The banter between Driver and Murray, meant to be endearing, is more often brutally dull. At one point Murray asks, “are we improv-ing here?” It’s a potentially killer line if any large, medium or pocket-sized laughs preceded it.
The camera lingers on munching zombies, bloodied bodies and other genre tropes as if no zom-com had preceded it.
Perhaps it’s Jarmusch’s way of paying tribute to the genre. If so, the entire film is one exasperating tribute, with direct references to Romero, “Star Wars,” “Night of the Living Dead” and more. These ostrich-sized Easter Eggs serve one purpose. They make you wanna revisit the name-checked films over this.
Or anything else playing at your local cineplex.
FAST FACT: Director Jim Jarmusch’s “Gimme Danger” gave audiences in intimate look at The Stooges and lead singer Iggy Pop. The two reconnected for “The Dead Don’t Die,” with Pop playing a zombie.
The press understandably made hay out of “The Dead Don’t Die’s” killer cast. Joining Murray, Swinton and Driver are Iggy Pop, Tom Waits, RZA, Selena Gomez, Chloe Sevigny and more.
They all should have known better than to tackle this tired, grumpy slab of Resistance Theater.
HiT or Miss: “The Dead Don’t Die” shows how hard it is to bring something fresh to the zombie genre.