Jim Jarmusch may have a singular cinematic style – think brooding, blackly humorous and slouchy of pace – but his CV runs the entire gamut. He’s done Westerns (Dead Man), mob movies (Ghost Dog) and vampire films (Only Lovers Left Alive).
For his latest opus, he’s taking genre-bending to entirely new heights. Take a soupcon of Americana mumblecore, wed it to a cop drama, chuck in some zombies, bone-dry comedy, kung-fu and season with a cheeky sprinkling of postmodernism. Haphazard enough, though the entire stew works.
In any case, we start off in sleepy Centerville, on the night shift for cops Cliff (Bill Murray) and Ronnie (Adam Driver). After admonishing Hermit Bob (Tim Waits) for breaking the peace, the only thing left to worry about is the corpse of the local soak Mallory (Carol Kane), currently lying in situ in the cophouse’s cells.
It’s the night shift, but the sun still blazes high in the sky, and for good reason. Polar fracking has popped the earth off its axis, enabling all sorts of weird goings on. More pertinently, it permits the dead to live again, or at least be undead again, as zombies.
Some, like Iggy Pop’s grey-skinned zombie, are hungry for coffee and waitress guts; others crave WiFi, fashion, Xanax and tennis – the things, essentially, that they loved when they were alive.
As the body count climbs, Cliff and Ronnie and Cliff’s deputy Mindy (Chloe Sevigny) have a job on their hands keeping the town under control. Enter Zelda (Tilda Swinton), a Scottish funeral home director wielding a samurai sword with the assured insouciance of a professional. And, from the comic book nerd Bobby Wiggins (Caleb Landry Jones) and racist farmer (Steve Buscemi) to the local waitress Fern (Ezster Balint) who has never heard of The Great Gatsby, this smalltown is suitably bursting with colourful characters galore.
There’s a hefty helping of political polemic in the mix, too: Jarmusch is evidently not afraid to point fingers over fracking, while Buscemi’s odious Farmer Bob proudly sports a ‘Make America White Again’ cap and has a dog named Rumsfeld. One local, upon getting mauled by a pack of zombies, shrieks ‘refugees!’ before the death rattle takes hold. All very zesty and contemporary, but in a film that’s stylistically scattergun to begin with, the political winks mean that there’s way too much going on.
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Jarmusch sets the film up with a nimble and droll script, not to mention the dream comic pairing of Murray and Driver. And, even without a cast pockmarked with stars, a stylistic mash-up of Three Billboards and Dawn Of The Dead is a rather fine starting point for any project.
Alas, things start to rip at the seams of Dead Don’t Die midway through. Jarmusch’s nod to the zombie genre is so faithful as to be verging on boilerplate. There’s the grizzled hand reaching out of the gravel; the hoardes of fright-wigged and drooling cadavers shuffling into the night.
Things eventually take a turn so wacky that a strong suspension of disbelief is required. Finally, Jarmusch heads off into self-referencing, meta territory when Cliff and Ronnie refer to the end of the script (Ronnie received the end of the script, Cliff didn’t, leading him to deem Jarmusch a d***). It’s a break of the fourth wall that’s certainly bold, but not all that clever.
Dead Don’t Die’s strongest point, arguably, is its ensemble cast: a who’s who of Jarmusch alumni. Murray has been a faithful collaborator of the director’s for years; Driver a relative newcomer to his stable of muses. Swinton is mesmerizing and warmly funny as Zelda, the death adjacent weirdo. Sevigny’s sexy froideur rarely translates on screen, but here her descent into a shrieking emotional wreck results in a full-body cringe for the viewer. Danny Glover, Carol Kane, Tom Waits, RZA, Iggy Pop, Rosie Perez, Selena Gomez – no-one can ever say that Jarmusch can’t pull together an intriguing cast.
The director has long been known for a sort of lo-fi, off-kilter whimsy that made films like Broken Flowers and Paterson such cinematic beauties. For reasons best known to himself, Jarmusch has decided to pay homage (or play about with) genre cinema, just as he did the vampire genre in 2013’s Only Lovers Left Alive.
Yet in Dead Don’t Die, the nods to more conventional cinema tropes mean that Jarmusch’s special something gets lost in the mix. Where his previous outing Paterson (2016) was low on plot but cinematically rich on the lips, Dead Don’t Die is a film attempting subversion, yet suffering from identity crisis. Jarmusch says it best when he says nothing at all. The sooner he returns to this realisation, the better.