Filmmaker Jim Jarmusch works in a league of his own, and the laconic, meandering tone of his early films like “Stranger Than Paradise” and “Down By Law” established, at least in part, the style of independent cinema in the ’80s and ’90s. Having essentially originated his own genre, Jarmusch has subsequently worked within other genres, from the hitman movie with “Ghost Dog” to the vampire movie with “Only Lovers Left Alive” and, now, in “The Dead Don’t Die,” the zombie flick.
It ends up being not so much a film as a cast, a really great cast with Bill Murray as a burned-out small town sheriff, Adam Driver as his deputy, Tilda Swinton as a Scottish mortician who is handy with a katana, and that required marker of auteur coolness in any film, Tom Waits. But this exciting list only works as promising-sounding words. As a film experience, “The Dead Don’t Die” really drew a blank.
Like the cast and the concept, the beginning of the film was intriguing. The slow pace sets up the sense of impending doom, as people scratch their heads about uncanny goings-on. The sun stops setting and it doesn’t get dark when it should. Pets and livestock disappear. The news reports that the (invented) practice of polar fracking has affected the earth’s rotation. Eventually, a hand breaks through the ground in the graveyard. It belongs to Iggy Pop, who needs very little makeup to portray a zombie.
These are the hip details that elicit an appreciative chuckle, and the film is full of knowing inside jokes, like references to the zombie genre and George A. Romero. A song titled “The Dead Don’t Die,” written for the film by Sturgill Simpson, plays frequently on the radio until Murray asks why it sounds so familiar. Breaking the fourth wall, Driver explains it’s the film’s theme song.
Making a self-aware, meta movie is not the only way to get something interesting from a genre film like this, as proven by Jarmusch’s own 2013 film about vampires, in which he came up with some inventive new ways of thinking about the fictional bloodsuckers. Swinton and Tom Hiddleston play a vampire couple who use eternity to basically get lots of reading done and collect esoteric musical instruments. It’s a highly sophisticated fantasy, and the soundtrack is amazing.
But as “The Dead Don’t Die” lumbers on, the characters’ deadpan responses to the apocalypse become frustratingly muted. In their initial shock over the early zombie incidents, watching the townsfolk react with quiet disbelief made sense, but, in what I suppose is the Jarmusch hallmark, nothing really happens, even when the town is overrun with the undead, moaning for their former earthly comforts like Skittles, Wi-Fi and Chardonnay. As a satirical statement on consumerism, the film never earns its political jabs either.
Overall, this genre experiment exposes the limits rather than the possibilities of a zombie flick. “The Dead Don’t Die” was cool, but it wasn’t good. You want to see what Jarmusch does with an idea like this, but the answer appears to be “not much,” which might be the point in and of itself, but that’s rather ineffectual. The town goes down, not with a bang, but rather a smirk, and if nothing was going to happen, I should not have had to sit through all the zombie nonsense.
“The Dead Don’t Die” is available to rent.
Special doc screening for animal-lovers
The Azalea City Cat Coalition is sponsoring a screening of the celebrated documentary “The Cat Rescuers” at Ben May Main Library (701 Government St.) on Oct. 7, at 6 p.m. It concerns four women in Brooklyn who address a major cat overpopulation crisis in their neighborhood with skill, resilience and humor, and how their mission to reduce animal suffering, often at great sacrifice to themselves, has changed their lives.
The New York Times says “no animal lover should be surprised to find themselves holding back tears while watching this documentary,” and local animal-lovers will want to attend this screening in Bernheim Hall, as it benefits the local response to the crisis depicted in the documentary. Tickets are $15 and can be purchased through Eventbrite or at the door. The Azalea City Cat Coalition is an all-volunteer group that humanely provides treatment for feral cats and their colonies through maintenance and population control. Visit azaleacitycats.org to learn more.
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