Courtesy of Focus Features

Jim Jarmusch’s celeb-jammed zom­bie comedy

Review: The Dead Don’t Die is an attempt at winking satire – but the film’s success depends on our ability to stomach this sort of winking.

Rat­ing: 25

In recent years, direc­tor Jim Jar­musch has slowed his cin­e­ma down to a point where it has reached a kind of drawl­ing lethar­gy, and he has increas­ing­ly trained his lens on char­ac­ters set apart from the fran­tic goings-on of the mod­ern world. In 2013’s Only Lovers Left Alive, his cen­tral pair of vam­pires were at a remove from our times, old half-ghosts hid­ing from day­light; and his Pater­son was a sort of her­mit find­ing poet­ry in the small things.

Now his world-weary char­ac­ters are holed up as zom­bies emerge from their graves, and Tom Waits, play­ing a for­est-dwelling vagabond, opines that the pure chaos has emanat­ed from peo­ple want­i­ng to buy things”. The Dead Don’t Dies point­ed dis­dain towards moder­ni­ty is among its least sub­tle ele­ments, which is some achieve­ment con­sid­er­ing the film repeat­ed­ly breaks the fourth wall in search of easy laughs. 

The movie takes place in Cen­ter­ville, a small Amer­i­can town with its motel, din­er and garage, its cops (Bill Mur­ray and Adam Dri­ver) and its small town grudges. At first, Jar­musch is in con­trol and every­thing appears to be going well, with a few nice­ly shot open­ing sequences show­cas­ing Jarmusch’s trade­mark dead­pan. He intro­duces his host of char­ac­ters deft­ly, although there are already wor­ry­ing signs of glib­ness in, for instance, the cap that Steve Buscemi’s char­ac­ter sports, which says Keep Amer­i­ca White Again”. That smirk­ing, facile tone builds and builds until it becomes the film’s lin­gua fran­ca, infect­ing almost every scene.

In an ear­ly moment Driver’s dry police offi­cer plays Sturgill Simpson’s title song on the car radio prompt­ing Mur­ray to ask why the song sounds famil­iar. Because it’s the theme tune,” Dri­ver lacon­i­cal­ly replies. This self-regard con­tin­ues through­out, right up to a scene in which these same char­ac­ters name-check Jar­musch and call him an ass­hole”. Per­haps the film’s suc­cess depends on view­ers’ abil­i­ty to stom­ach this sort of winking.

So many oth­er ele­ments feel tired or con­trived, such as the under­writ­ten women – Chloë Sevi­gny as a tire­some, scream­ing cop whose stom­ach isn’t as strong as the guys’, or Sele­na Gomez’s sexy young ingenue, who gets lum­bered with lines like, Your film knowl­edge is impressive.” 

Oth­er ele­ments are more suc­cess­ful, such as the film’s pert way with visu­al com­e­dy: a scene of Dri­ver in a Smart car is the very def­i­n­i­tion of film heav­en, and Til­da Swin­ton dolling up two corpses in a morgue is also a delight­ful image. The movie’s vision of a world sent mad by eco­log­i­cal melt­down is wel­come, if ulti­mate­ly heavy-handed. 

But so much is life­less in this film, includ­ing its visu­al ele­ment. Lack­ing any scares of any kind – The Dead Don’t Die eschews these know­ing­ly – the movie runs out of rhythm. Even less for­giv­ably, it whol­ly under­writes three char­ac­ters, maroons them with­out a sto­ry­line, and, final­ly, com­plete­ly for­gets about them. This is in line with a kind of rough­ness that the film flaunts, which could be appeal­ing if not for a cer­tain mean­ness of spir­it in its vision. The pity in this ulti­mate­ly vain­glo­ri­ous movie is that Jar­musch becomes com­pla­cent, falling back on spe­cious con­clu­sions that appease his know­ing audience.

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