The Dead Don’t Die (2019) — An excruciatingly slow zombie invasion

“The world is perfect appreciate the details.”

ZombieDog’s rating: You will either love it or hate it.

ZombieDog’s review: This distinction between “like” and “love” is critical in understanding the way I view film. I would be willing to wager that there isn’t a visitor to this website who doesn’t have a favorite film that they can relate to wonderful or even difficult parts of their life. If music is the soundtrack of our life, then movies have to be the visual stories that fill the gaps.

There are movies that I love and probably ten times as many movies that I like. The movies that I love enrich my life in ways that I struggle to describe, but the movies that I like make up the majority of the movies I watch and give me moments of laughter, moments of thought, or just plain pleasant background noise. I, by far, re-watch more movies that I like than movies I love. Movies that I love are kind of sacred and are meant to be treated as such. But movies I like, well, they fit wherever they feel best.

There are times when I like the porn of a kung fu movie where people fight just because they met on the road. Other times, a bad sci-fi movie where you don’t have to think, and the evil alien gets punished in the end. For our purposes though, I want to talk about the attempted art-house flick with the quasi-coherent plot line starring a barrel full of popular actors. I’m talking about Jim Jarmusch’s 2019 The Dead Don’t Die.

Jarmusch has been making independent films since the early ’80s. I would describe his success as mixed, however some of those films have been quite powerful and only served to expand my love of movies. Films like, Dead Man (1995) starring Johnny Depp, Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai (1999), and one of the movies that started my passion for independent cinema, Stranger Than Paradise (1983).

The Dead Don’t Die stars Bill Murray and Adam Driver as police officers in the small Pennsylvania town of Centerville. There is a strong “Andy Griffith meets The Twilight Zone” vibe. In fact, the very first scene with Chief Cliff Robertson (Murray) and Officer Ronnie Peterson (Driver) they are investigating the theft of a chicken. Their main suspect is Hermit Bob (Tom Waits). Hermit Bob is less than cooperative — moreover, he takes a shot at the officers.

In Andy Griffith style, the chief shrugs it off and just yells into the woods, “Don’t break any more laws, just calm down.” On the way back to town they discover that some of their radios are not working right. Additionally, their watches and cell phones appear to be malfunctioning also. This doesn’t really cause concern, rather it just seems to be matter-of-fact. This is also where we experience a repeating trend of the use of “The Dead Don’t Die” by Sturgill Simpson playing on the radio.

Get used to it, you’re going to hear it many more times.

Officer Peterson then says without any prompting, “This isn’t going to end well.” The best way to describe this is a kind of running gag in the movie. It does have a payoff, then like everything else it’s muted.

I cannot overstate enough how slowly this film moves. I would say even at this early point in the film you have to decide if it’s for you. At times The Dead Don’t Die is meta, at other times it is a nod to the 1950s monster movies with an injection of social commentary. On the whole, it’s all these things and it’s none of them.

While the narrative may not be entirely clear, Jarmusch is amazingly skilled at creating characters. We get to know everybody in the town on a level that makes them more than just relatable; it feels like we actually know them. This aspect of the film is what most feels like a monster movie from the ’50s. Everyone in the town is seeing and experiencing things that are completely unusual and unnerving. At the same time, we are hearing news reports and reading newspaper headlines that tell us these events are happening globally. This sense of global impending doom is constantly put at odds with the characters nonchalant reactions. To be fair, I think he is pointing out that this is how they responded many times in the ’50s monster movies. Look, a giant tarantula or aliens are landing in the desert, that’s peculiar.

Inevitably, the zombies show up and kill two people who work at the local diner. They are the slow-moving Romero zombies, so they are kind of stumbling around yet nonetheless effective and lethal. When the bodies are discovered the next day, people are stunned but not upset. Completely baffled as to what is going on, the chief asks his deputy what he thinks. Without hesitation the deputy says “zombies.”

Whether this is meta or injection of cultural awareness I’m uncertain, but it’s kind of funny. Whenever I watch movies it’s always strange that the characters in the movies are completely unaware of the genre they are in. We the viewer aware of zombies, vampires, aliens and what have you, and I will admit that when I watch movies where the characters encounter creatures that it seems like society is well aware of, I am stunned when they express a lack of knowledge.

Eventually the town becomes overrun with zombies from the local graveyard. They do have the movie strategy of shoot them in the head, but the sheer numbers of them spells certain doom. At least until the UFO shows up.

I like The Dead Don’t Die. Albeit if there’s any movie that is going to provoke a “love it or hate it” reaction, it’s this one. Before the movie came out, there was a pretty strong ad campaign, and the trailer for the film has a completely different tone than the actual movie. The trailer gives the impression that this is some kind of wacky black comedy. The truth is a little bit more complicated. It is a black comedy, but it isn’t, it is an attempt at a zombie film, but it isn’t, it has something to say about society and our culture… however I’m not entirely clear what it is. All of these middle-ground attempts at accomplishing whatever goals they had set for themselves feel like they gave up halfway through.

So why do I like it? I love the slow storytelling. It’s got an amazing cast list. Bill Murray and Adam Driver alone make this movie worth watching. I really love the filming location. It’s backwoods yet it’s not primitive backwoods. It’s a small peaceful town which does provide the perfect backdrop. In the end though, I truly enjoyed the characters and character development. These are seasoned actors with an experienced director and that definitely shines through. The story is lacking even if it is forgivable. Although, I do think the Blu-ray should come with a bag of weed.

If this is your first exposure to Jim Jarmusch, I would say give Dead Man a chance before you judge his directing skills. It’s a considerably better film.

Quick recommendations:

  • Mystery Train (1989)
  • Night on Earth (1991)
  • Coffee and Cigarettes (2003)

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