Jim Jarmusch's The Dead Don't Die is a stumbling pass at horror

The Dead Don’t Die has nothing to add to the accomplishments of Shaun of the Dead and Zombieland

Sign Up

Get the New Statesman's Morning Call email.

Genre didn’t interest Jim Jarmusch for the first 15 years of his directing career, until he realised that his spaced-out sensibility and casts of laconic drifters could survive intact in its ecosystem: that the conventions of a Western (Dead Man), a vampire movie (Only Lovers Left Alive), or a hit-man thriller (Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai; The Limits of Control) might heighten and intensify his customary style. He bends genre to his will once again in The Dead Don’t Die, a zombie comedy with a starry cast and a tone best described as undeadpan.

The film is set in Centerville, a one-horse American town hit by strange cosmic occurrences: daylight stretching into night, animals making a run for the woods. Could it be something to do with that round of polar fracking that has tilted the Earth off its axis? The authorities claim there have been no negative consequences but the kids at the Centerville Detention Centre, where the chairs in the television room resemble tombstones, know better. “Total planetary destruction,” predicts Geronimo (Jahi Winston). “Sounds like the start of a horror movie,” replies Olivia (Taliyah Whitaker), known as “Liv” – the sort of name you want should you find yourself in a zombie film.

With the exception of the local hobo, Hermit Bob (Tom Waits), the adults are less clued-up. Cliff (Bill Murray), the police chief, is a good egg who rides around with his deputy, Ronnie (Adam Driver), and responds with equanimity to the increasingly odd goings-on. Over at the diner, Farmer Miller (Steve Buscemi) – who has a dog named Rumsfeld and wears a “Keep America White Again” baseball cap – complains within earshot of his African-American neighbour Hank (Danny Glover) that his coffee is “too black”. (Stumbling out of a shop into the blazing light, another character remarks: “It’s so white out!”) When the dead start vacating their graves, the town is lucky to have Zelda (Tilda Swinton), a platinum-haired Scottish mortician who proves to be handy with a katana once her restless corpses require decapitating.

Different zombies turn out to have differing needs. It’s fun to see Iggy “Lust for Life” Pop as one of the living dead, bursting into a diner in search of a strong coffee. Some mill around the chemist crying for Xanax, others head for the baseball field. “They gravitate toward things they did when they were alive,” says Ronnie (an idea lifted from Dawn of the Dead, in which zombies flock to the shopping mall). In a scene that will be familiar to anyone who has visited a high street recently, hordes of staggering figures are shown crowding the pavements, their lifeless eyes glued to their smartphones as they moan plaintively for “WiFi”.

This is amusing as far as it goes, but the appeal of the film’s practised and deliberate amateurism is exhausted fairly quickly. The Dead Don’t Die has nothing to add to the accomplishments of Shaun of the Dead and Zombieland, and offers instead only a vague, timely sense of concern. When Cliff’s colleague Mindy (Chloë Sevigny) asks him to tell her that it’s all going to go away, that it’s just a bad dream, she might be any deluded soul who thinks she can make the world a better place simply by wishing it so.

An eventual turn toward the Pirandello-esque comes across as especially desperate. There are references to the film’s theme song, and Cliff wonders if he is meant to be improvising; Ronnie has a Star Wars keyring (Adam Driver is a franchise regular) and Rosie Perez plays a TV presenter named Posie Juarez. One character even claims that “Jim” has shown him “the script”. There’s a name for this sort of film: home movie.

Jarmusch is so busy with in-jokes that he forgets about Geronimo and Liv, who have escaped from the detention centre and ended up… where? In Tim Burton’s splendid Mars Attacks!, children also represented the great hope for humanity – all those hours spent on arcade games gave them the necessary skills to slay the invading extra-terrestrials – but a more different case of Director-Meets-Genre is hard to imagine. Burton used his particular anarchic talents to satirise and transform the alien-invasion movie, while Jarmusch seems merely to be ticking “zombie film” off his bucket list. 

The Dead Don’t Die (15)
dir: Jim Jarmusch

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards and is Film Critic in Residence at Falmouth University.

This article appears in the 12 July 2019 issue of the New Statesman, The state we’re in