Jim Jarmusch’s The Dead Don’t Die is an ambitious but ultimately ineffective satirical zom-com, which fails to make the most of its impressive ensemble cast (Adam Driver, Chloe Sevigny, Bill Murray, Tilda Swinton and Tom Waits, among others). The premise of the film is far from original. The town of Centerville is plagued by the undead, including a bedraggled Iggy Pop, looking only a little greyer than usual. In the first of many nods to George A. Romero’s work, the zombies gravitate towards activities and objects they enjoyed while they were alive. Iggy comes seeking coffee, others favour baseball, tennis or free cable. These affectations move swiftly from feeble gags to tiresome on-the-nose didacticisms. Zombies roam the streets searching for wi-fi and Bluetooth, shuffling around with glowing smartphones.
Materialism is not the only issue that Jarmusch attempts to cover. The unsubtle Farmer Bob (Steve Buscemi) wears a ‘Make America White Again’ hat, and tells the undead to ‘go back where they came from’, an unambiguous reference to contemporary right-wing xenophobia. Bob’s narrative ends with his grisly demise, screaming ‘goddamn refugees’ as he is swallowed up by the horde. The cause of Centerville’s undead issue is reportedly ‘polar fracking’, turning the earth from its axis, causing all sorts of spooky meteorological occurrences. Exploitative private organisations are repeatedly exonerated by the government, indicating contempt not only for inconsiderate capitalism, but political and administrative inaction.
The Dead Don’t Die’s faults do not lie, for the most part, with the ensemble’s performances. Tilda Swinton is particularly otherworldly in her portrayal of Zelda Winston, and if she is only occasionally funny (as is the case with Adam Driver’s Ronnie Peterson), it is not for a lack of trying. The actors do the best they can with Jarmusch’s writing, which is rarely laugh-out-loud amusing. It is likely that part of the disappointment stems from the trailer, which suggests a far more marketable tongue-in-cheek film.
Characters shuffle from one situation to the next without really affecting the narrative. Such is the case with the three young people in a cartoonish juvenile detention centre. They stand around gawping before escaping into the woods, symbolising (I guess) some kind of hope for the future. Part of the problem with this film is finding a reason to care for these characters, since Jarmusch barely seems to. Sub-plots make up most of the narrative and are frustratingly one-dimensional, written to expound one or another of Jarmusch’s grievances without allowing the characters to develop convincing, rounded personalities.
While it is hard to disagree with Jarmusch’s targets – xenophobia and rampant capitalism – this does not undo the film’s incredible unsubtly. Even the recurrent theme song which accompanies the opening credits tells the audience to ‘look up from their damn phones’. As a straight-up comedy, The Dead Don’t Die has its moments, but they are few and far between, and encumbered by clumsy denunciations. Of course, subtlety may never have been Jarmusch’s aim. Ronnie Peterson is very aware of the film’s fictional narrative, at one point referencing the script specifically. Gags like this are vaguely amusing at first, but by the end are as uninteresting as the rest of the feature.
The Dead Don’t Die could have been a searing indictment of modern society. Yet despite the surprisingly impressive special effects and a hugely talented ensemble cast, neither are utilised effectively. Most audience members will already know the dangers of scientific and moral ignorance, and rampant materialism has been a fact of life for decades. Yes, we know we look like zombies, with our smartphones and shallow obsessions. The problem with Jarmusch’s observations are their patronising superficiality, while his weak, bitter metaphors shamble clumsily up and down Centerville’s main street. Audiences expecting Shaun of the Dead 2 were left instead with the ramblings of a disgruntled old misanthrope.