Filmmaker Jim Jarmusch is nothing if not versatile, as can happen with a career that spans more than three decades. His early works helped shape a burgeoning independent film scene, while lately he’s indulged in bigger budgets and bolder narratives; 2013’s Only Lovers Left Alive is perhaps one of the best vampire films in the genre, and 2016’s Paterson established Adam Driver as an impressive acting talent beyond the small screen.
Jarmusch returns to cinemas this week with The Dead Don’t Die, tackling the zombie film genre as only he could: painfully self-aware, desperate to be funny and so utterly pointless it’s weirdly enjoyable. Corralling an ensemble cast to fawn over, most of whom have worked with the filmmaker previously, the film is such a slow burn you might just forget that the flame is on at all. In what becomes a running joke, Driver, as Officer Ronnie Peterson says early on to his partner, Chief Cliff Robertson (Bill Murray), “This isn’t gonna end well, Cliff.” No, it sure isn’t.
The two, along with Chloë Sevigny’s Officer Mindy Morrison, make up the police force of Centerville, a mid-America small town populated by various characters of predictable cliché: the racist, Trump-supporting farmer (Steve Buscemi), the down home diner waitress (Eszter Balint), the regional newscaster (Rosie Perez), the smarmy motel owner (Larry Fessenden), the town recluse (Tom Waits…and on and on. Credit to Jarmusch for going all-in on his world building here; the film’s marketing doesn’t quite allude to the grand scale of the circumstances, how it is that Centerville becomes zombie-fied. If the rest of the film drags, at least it’s all given a context within the framework of the film.
If only that world building could save the film from itself, a narrative that gets so infatuated with its own absurdity it seems to forget that actual people are sitting through each excruciatingly awkward moment. A bit about the officers discovering the first zombie victims probably sounded great at the table read, but on screen it’s so overplayed and dragged out that you’ll breathe a sigh of relief when it’s finally over. Of course, the over-stuffed first two acts could be forgive for their plodding if the third act delivered a pay off worth the wait. Instead, Jarmusch leaves entire characters without resolution and turns the whole thing into a goofy zombie free-for-all.
That’s not to say there aren’t moments of fun among the mess. There certainly are, and a few jokes (RZA as a delivery man with “Wu-PS” is a particular crowd-pleaser) land with verve. Tilda Swinton as a samurai-wielding mortician with an unplaceable accent is as oddball as it is fantastic—also known as everything we adore about Tilda Swinton. But as the cast falls one by one to the zombie apocalypse, Jarmusch leans so far into his themes about politics, climate change, vice and technology that you’ll be begging to go back to the awkwardness of the first half just to get some breathing room.
The Dead Don’t Die isn’t going to be remembered as one of Jarmusch’s best; a star-studded ensemble cast isn’t enough to make anything of a disorganized, laborious plot that doesn’t end up going much of anywhere. And yet, there’s sporadic fun to be had here; set all that plot stuff aside and you just might be able to appreciate an old fashioned zombie romp.