dead don't die review
© Universal Pictures International (UPI)

The Dead Don’t Die

Dir: Jim Jarmusch

Yawn of the Dead

Anticipation was sky high for Jim Jarmusch’s The Dead Don’t Die. Understandable, considering the cast list. Fully aware this was its strongest hand (a hand breaking up through a graveyard plot, of course) it powered its pre-release advertising: “The greatest zombie cast ever dis-assembled”. Unfortunately such trumpeting may have raised expectations to a level the film couldn’t actually satisfy.

I guess it doesn’t help that, within its tiny sub-genre, the zom-com has been comprehensively nailed on more than one occasion before. Beyond the now hallowed text of Shaun of the Dead (2004), America’s response a few years later, Zombieland (2009), was equally sparky. Even the under-rated and criminally under-seen Cockneys vs Zombies (2012) had wit and verve. And, um, actual jokes. In the eerily reflected light of those shining examples, Jarmusch’s lower gear style just doesn’t suit the material so well. For this is a decidedly slow-core take on the apocalyptic farce. Such restrained pacing is in line with the stumbling approach of the undead, yes, but this is so dragging of foot it trips itself up.

Centreville, US of A. Reports abound that ‘polar fracking’ has tipped the world on its axis by a few degrees. Those in the know fear such a shift could trigger the dead rising. Even if it’s greeted with a shrug of resigned expectation by most. Meanwhile, the zombie-obsessive gas-station attendant (Caleb Landry Jones) sports his Night of the Living Dead badge, as if in hope. Then, er, the dead do rise (at once delighting and dooming him in equal measure). And that’s, er, pretty much it.

Yet the much-touted cast is strong enough to sustain it …just. Even the supporting players in this backwater hicksville are the likes of Steve Buscemi, Danny Glover, and the hirsute hobo in the woods, Tom Waits. As for the three leads, cop Adam Driver glides down the descent into hell with a calm, detached bemusement, while Chloe Sevigny goes for the opposite approach and completely freaks the hell out. Meanwhile Bill Murray is… well, Bill Murray. But one of the finest purveyors of the sardonic quip isn’t really given any funny lines. But then it’s not really a film for zingy gags. It’s a film for gradually realising how bizarre it’s all become with a gentle titter. Because it turns out to be a kooky little oddball. Fun to stumble across on TV after dark. Dare to imagine it without such high-profile names attached, though, and you’re likely staring down the barrel of a B-movie misfire.

In the grand zombie tradition, it takes pot shots at contemporary targets… Trump’s America, fracking of course… plus the required Romero-ism that we’re all zombies, sleepwalking through life, especially now we’re forever staring into the black mirror of our phones. So good, so zombie-horror-subtext. Yet such routine satire does feel a little old hat this time round.

On top of the quality personnel, a canny soundtrack buoys proceedings up. And the dispatching of the undead is done with originality and visual panache. Which is no mean feat. But, balanced in the nether-region between cutting satire, hilarious comedy and art house curiosity, the sum of all these (body) parts doesn’t really fit anywhere.

This self-aware sarcastic send-up may find a devoted fan base, once the expectation raised by such A-list names has died down. Because what Jarmusch has made is a lethargic cult movie for late-night consumption. Preferably after a bit of late night consumption. Only time will tell if it finds an audience and staggers on, or sinks back down into the dust from whence it came.

★ ★ ½

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