Movie Review: 'The Dead Don't Die' Fumbles as Zombie Satire
Jim Jarmusch takes aim at those darn kids with their texts and their cellphones and misses wildly.
The classic Simpsons headline gag turned meme “Old Man Yells at Cloud” comes to mind rather often for me. I used to admonish myself and call out others who fruitlessly rage in no particular direction, hitting no targets and just generally being misguided. "Old man yells at cloud" is a solid description for writer-director Jim Jarmusch and his new movie The Dead Don’t Die. As written by Jarmusch, The Dead Don’t Die rages satirically against millennial's and consumer culture and iPhones, with no particular direction to the rage.
The Dead Don’t Die stars Bill Murray and Adam Driver as small town cops, Cliff and Ronnie. Something strange is happening in their small town, Centerville, Pennsylvania, and they are baffled by it all. The day seems to last too long, watches and phones have stopped working, and there is some sort of strange interference in the television signal. Then people start getting viciously murdered.
Ronnie offers the idea that a pack of wild animals may have killed two beloved locals, but quickly switches theories to zombies. This is, perhaps, because Ronnie has read the script. Yes, The Dead Don’t Die is a meta-movie, one that breaks the fourth wall occasionally to comment on the action. Driver and Murray are the only characters who partake in the fourth wall breaking, but the meta stuff is not a big part of The Dead Don’t Die. Instead, the meta nonsense is one of many ideas that Jarmusch throws at the screen without much thought.
Yes, the dead have risen and they are attacking the populace of Centerville, but they are also trying to resume their everyday activities. While they seek flesh to eat, zombies also seek coffee, good wi-fi and the hobbies they took part in when they were alive. In a cringeworthy, "Old Man Yells at Cloud" moment, Jarmusch equates zombie behavior to those darn kids who are always on their iPhones, never looking up, and failing to engage in the world. Those darn kids!
This particular bit of satirical commentary could be delivered on stage at any suburban comedy club by about a dozen interchangeable, dad bod rocking hack comics. It comes off as specifically sad and lame coming from a director who is known for being smart and thoughtful. As a fan of Jarmusch’s work going back to the late 80s, I found it is sad to see him parroting the hack observations of your average failed stand up comic or High School guidance counselor. Kids and their phones, they’re like zombies and what’s the deal with airline food?
That said, The Dead Don’t Die isn’t without moments of inspiration. Tilda Swinton is wonderfully cast and employed to tremendous comic effect. Swinton and Jarmusch make a sublime team, as Jarmusch captures the alien qualities that make Swinton so eye catching, and Swinton appears comfortable with Jarmusch leaning into all of the weird perceptions of her as an actress and personality.
In The Dead Don’t Die, Swinton plays anything you can imagine. She’s an undertaker, from Scotland who is also a ninja. Oh, and there is a twist I won’t spoil, as I don’t want to entirely push you away from seeing The Dead Don’t Die. Tilda Swinton diehards will definitely want to see this movie and drink in every delicious oddity from her clipped, accented speech, to her remarkably lithe swordplay. Swinton is so interesting she overwhelms the rest of the movie.
Swinton-heads, a term I hope that I am coining here, are unfortunately, the only audience likely to truly enjoy The Dead Don’t Die. The film, outside of Swinton, has only mild pleasures, including Bill Murray’s auto-pilot charm and Adam Driver’s oddball appeal. Murray and Driver have chemistry and I did enjoy their dynamic, but their complete lack of forward momentum as characters becomes a drag on the movie. A lot of scenes happen with Murray and Driver just driving around and occasionally having a meta conversation about the script.
There are other characters in The Dead Don’t Die, but they only point further toward the aimless satire of Jarmusch’s faltering script. Selena Gomez is perhaps the most egregious bit of casting. Gomez appears to have been cast in The Dead Don’t Die because she is Selena Gomez and the fate of her character can be played for comic effect because she’s a well known millennial star emblematic of those darn kids with their texting and their wi-fi.
Ideas are introduced and then dropped repeatedly in The Dead Don’t Die. Characters tease romantic interaction that goes nowhere. Murray and Driver have the meta stuff about the script that never pays off. Steve Buscemi appears in the movie as a very on the nose shot at President Trump supporters, but there is only one note to the joke, a hat the character wears. The satire of The Dead Don’t Die is either clumsy and failing or downright embarrassing.
Jim Jarmusch’s style has always been rather shambling. He has directed a few movies that could be described as characters stumbling toward a plot, sometimes finding one, sometimes not. Many times in Jarmusch’s past movies, this searching for a plot works out with a charming, existential lament or a darkly comic minor adventure. It does not work here however, as the aimlessness of The Dead Don’t Die is burdened with Jarmusch’s dreadful, "Old Man Yells at Cloud" version of satire.