The last time director Jim Jarmusch and Adam Driver teamed up, the world was blessed with the delightfully poetic and low-key Paterson, which explored themes of life and love through the perspective of a bus driver and his girlfriend. The Dead Don’t Die is not like that. If Paterson found serenity in the simplicity of its two lead characters, Driver and Jarmusch’s latest collaboration explores the chaos of several intersecting narratives within a zombie apocalypse, weaving together a handful of disparate characters into a story that combines the Zom-Com of Shaun of the Dead and the deadpan wit of Fargo.
Taking place in the fictional town of Centerville, a so-called ‘Real Nice Place’, Jarmusch uses his clout within the indie world to assemble an all-star cast including Driver and Bill Murray as the police officers who task themselves with defeating the undead, Danny Glover as a hardware store owner who finds the first victims of the apocalypse, Tilda Swinton as a scene-stealing katana-wielding funeral director named Zelda and Tom Waits as the nomadic Hermit Bob. The result is Jarmusch’s most maximalist film to date, but one that sometimes buckles under the weight of its own ideas.
Chloe Sevigny, Bill Murray and Adam Driver in The Dead Don't Die.
It’s not a wild philosophical stretch to say that the zombie uprising in The Dead Don’t Die is an allegory for climate change. Much of the first act is dedicated to explaining the concept of polar fracking and how its potential to knock the earth off axis could have apocalyptic consequences.
This early exposition seems wasted as Jarmusch goes on to pay only lip service to the threat of climate change, without offering a new perspective on the subject. Jarmusch also explores the idea that the people of Centerville were already zombies before the uprising, conditioned by their mundane society to live mindlessly in pursuit of something to pass the time – a theme explored ad nauseum in modern zombie flicks which Jarmusch only barely adds to in any meaningful way.
While Jarmusch fumbles the subtext, his trademark sense of wit saves The Dead Don’t Diefrom becoming another forgettable end of the world comedy. Driver and Murray deliver their lines with such a sleepy, deadpan tone that when the equally sedate undead finally arrive, Jarmusch mines the juxtaposition for all its worth, with pseudo-slow-motion fight scenes a plenty.
The director also makes full use of Tilda Swinton’s offbeat charm, giving her some of the film’s most hilarious, yet surprisingly well crafted and beautifully shot, action scenes, setting her up as the film’s saviour before subverting the deux-ex-machina narrative cliché of a film like Shaun of the Dead. Jarmusch also continues his ongoing love of casting musicians in cameo roles, with Iggy Pop and Sturgill Simpson, who wrote the song from which this film gets its name, barely recognisable as decomposing zombies.
A zombie comedy from Jim Jarmusch starring Bill Murray and featuring Adam Driver saying the word ‘ghouls’ should have been the best film of the year, but unfortunately The Dead Don’t Die doesn’t quite live up to its potential. While the film is packed with the director’s off-beat sense of humour, Jarmusch’s flirtations with sci-fi and meta jokes don’t quite stick the landing, while the film’s social message seems trite and surface level.
Still, it’s exciting to see an acclaimed director like Jim Jarmusch still trying new things over thirty years into his career. It’s also refreshing to see directors finally come around to Adam Driver’s comedy chops; between this film and his Oscar-nominated turn in BlacKkKlansman last year, it seems the actor might be one of the few to break the Star Wars curse and become a star in their own right.
The Dead Don't Die is in UK cinemas from 12th July, 2019.