Roger Ebert would often look at a movie and wonder whether it would be more interesting to watch a documentary of the same cast having lunch. With The Dead Don’t Die, there’s absolutely no question. Hell, I could watch an entire Netflix series with just Bill Murray and Tom Waits going beer for beer. Unfortunately, this zombie movie is nowhere near that compelling. Yeah, it has moments of dry cleverness and some downright wacky performances, but this Dead ultimately dies with a dull thud.
Our languid plot begins in Centersville, USA, a tiny town so sleepy it makes Mayberry look like Hell’s Kitchen. Two of the town’s apathetic police force (Murray and Adam Driver) are dispatched to quell a gibbering forrest hermit (Tom Waits, looking a lot like a hobo Klingon). He fires a shot over their heads, prompting the cops to shrug and issue a toothless warning. (“Don’t break the law anymore, or we’ll have to come back.”) The hermit notices some unusual patterns in the animal behavior around him, and believes that, well, shit’s about to get real.
Meanwhile, the Earth has been jiggled off its axis by fracking operations at the poles. Days and nights become a maddening jumble, and corpses slowly come twitching back to life. The film depicts these events through the eyes of Centerville’s gallery of unabashed eccentrics: We meet a Scottish undertaker (Tilda Swinton), who spends her downtime training with a Kill Bill samurai sword, a cranky bigot (Steve Buscemi, sporting a knockoff Trump hat that strips any subtlety from the joke), and a nebbish store clerk (Caleb Landry Jones), who seems oddly well-equipped for the impending end of days. For good measure, writer-director Jim Jarmusch chucks in a trio of citified hipsters (led by Selena Gomez), probably to add some youth in a movie filled with crinkly character actors.
All this colorful description probably makes the movie sound more interesting than it is. Much of the story moves like cold molasses. Murray and Driver occupy most of the screen time, and their characters are so deliberately bland that it drains a lot of the interest from their scenes. It’s clear that much of their interaction is a riff on the inertia of small town life, but eventually it bogs the whole movie in amber.
There’s also a vibe that Jarmusch wasn’t sure what kind of tone to take. His movie ambles from Romero homage to modern zombie spoof to a quirky, character-driven black comedy. Characters occasionally express a macro-awareness that they are players in a zombie movie. (“Are we improvising?” Murray’s cop asks at one point.) These moments aim for a smirky cuteness, and none of them land. We also hear snippets of environmental commentary, but this–or possibly a satire of this–never gets developed properly.
So much of this movie gets filed in the bin of What Might Have Been. Top-notch talent fills every scene. (I didn’t count, but Oscar-nominated actors are everywhere.) Jarmusch has consistently delivered some of the most charmingly odd indie movies in recent history. Unfortunately, none of this gels into anything substantial. As the movie dragged through its lugubrious final act, I imagined how much fun its wrap party must’ve been: This great cast and crew could get shitfaced and share a thousand stories. That’s a movie I would love to watch.
103 min. R.
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