THE DEAD DON’T DIE (2019): The Artsy-Oddball “Hang Sesh” Of Zombie Movies

Schlockmania had severe misgivings when the trailer for The Dead Don’t Die first emerged online. It looked like another Mars Attacks: i.e., a vintage b-movie premise that had more talent thrown at it then it could bear, resulting in a wink-wink/nudge-nudge exercise in painfully self-conscious camp. Thankfully, a look at the film itself reveals that The Dead Don’t Die has more going on than the trailer first suggested.  Mileage will vary depending on the viewer’s mood and interests but this is a surprisingly agreeable little lark that’s more inspired than it first lets on.

The Dead Don’t Die is set in a rural small town in Pennsylvania that bears more than a passing resemblance to the setting of Night Of The Living Dead. News reports suggest that fracking at the earth’s poles is throwing it off its axis but the townspeople just sleepwalk through their day. The town populace includes sad-sack sheriff Cliff (Bill Murray), downbeat deputy Ronnie (Adam Driver), nervous deputy Mindy (Chloe Sevigny), ornery Hermit Bob (Tom Waits), oddball mortician Zelda (Tilda Swinton) and genre enthusiast gas station owner Bobby (Caleb Landry Jones).  Sure enough, the earth’s axis issues result in the dead hungrily returning to life, leaving the townspeople to deal with impending doom in ways brutal and deadpan/darkly humorous.

The resulting film is being greeted with a collective shrug: it’s not spoof-ish enough for the comedy crowd, too willfully goofball for the horror crowd and too thematically lightweight for the arthouse crowd who normally enjoys director Jim Jarmusch’s work. To Schlockmania’s point of view, it doesn’t really try to fulfill any of the above mandates. Instead, it is content to take the conventions and themes of the zombie subgenre and bring them to heel so they can be remolded into a low-key, Jarmusch-style “hang sesh” of a film.   

As a result, The Dead Don’t Die never rises above a level of modest amusement and that actually seems to be the point. There are moments of fourth-wall breaking, some gentle tweaking of right-winders and recurring gags (the best is the film’s beguiling vintage country-style theme and various characters’ thoughts on it).  That said, these bits aren’t there to strain for laughs but instead to establish an off-kilter atmosphere of bemusement. The same could be said for the zombie action, with is surprisingly bloody and involved but captured in a style that is matter-of-fact surreal and off-handedly funny all at once.

If you’re looking for high levels of ambition or pointed satire from The Dead Don’t Die, you’ll probably be disappointed.  This feels like a between-big-projects style exercise for Jarmusch and company, an opportunity to play with horror and comedy elements in a way that reflects the current mood. The one, gently communicated theme that seems to jump out here is the idea that our society has grown too used to ignoring bad news or constructing their own personal worlds that they fail to see the larger-scale dangers creeping up on them.  That feels pretty accurate and the understated way it’s handled reflects Jarmusch’s style.  It’s also interesting to note that he handles the zombie attack scenes with unexpected skill, mixing prosthetics and digital FX in a way that’s often more visually interesting than a lot of serious zombie films.

The biggest fun here comes from just hanging out with the cast and watching them interact (note: the mannered style of performance communicates much better in the film than it does in the trailer). Murray and Driver share a competitive charisma as they try to out-deadpan each other and Sevigny does a pitch-perfect rendition of the “heroine succumbing to trauma” in what seems to be a tribute to Judith O’Dea.  There’s also fun work from indie horror fixture Larry Fessenden as a motel owner and Buscemi doing his familiar “annoyed jerk” schtick. That said, the scene stealer is Swinton as the quirkiest of the characters – and in a nice touch, the film actually comes up with an interesting way to explain her quirks.

In short, The Dead Don’t Die isn’t for all tastes but it’s an amusing, distinctively stylized little lark if you can tune into its eccentric wavelength.  In a season filled with crummy sequels, it’s oddly comforting to see an arthouse guy infiltrate a commercial style of horror and bend its elements to fit his own aesthetics and interests. If that sounds fun, it just might give you a brief break from the summer multiplex doldrums.

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