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DIRECTED BY: Jim Jarmusch
PLOT: The townsfolk of Centreville, USA find their quiet routine is interrupted by re-animated undead who rise when the Earth is thrown off its axis by polar fracking.
WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Jim Jarmusch opts for restraint in his take on the zombie genre, resulting in a Xanaxed, matter-of-fact “horror” movie that will tickle zombie movie revisionists and infuriate dogmatic enthusiasts. “Oddball” describes the tone well, as it describes pretty much everything Jarmusch has put his hand to.
COMMENTS: I’ve been advised by 366’s executive board on a handful of occasions that the movie image I choose for my reviews should be “more dynamic.” I am flouting that admonition for Jarmusch’s latest outing because, though it is certainly well-shot, its overall tone is “languid.” Indeed, the preponderance of A-list actors delivering hyper-low-key performances nearly tipped The Dead Don’t Die into apocrypha candidacy—that, along with its self-awareness, and humorous streak being coupled with an unfailing adherence to every zombie-movie rule in the book. Jarmusch’s venture into the realm of horror-comedy doesn’t quite reach the lofty heights for certification, but to its credit it’s also a near-miss for the “ ” designation.
The story is as old as time itself (or at least as old as 1968), as a tiny American town finds that it’s on the front line against a horde of shambling undead. The action kicks off with Centreville’s chief of police, Cliff Robertson (Bill Murray), with his sidekick Officer Ronnie Peterson (Adam Driver, proving he isn’t the mopey so-and-so his more famous films would suggest), investigating the alleged theft of a chicken from Farmer Frank (a “Make America White Again”-hat-wearing-hick incarnation of Steve Buscemi) by Hermit Bob (Tom Waits, who also acts as a Greek chorus throughout). “This isn’t going to end well,” Ronnie tells us. And it doesn’t. Despite the best efforts of the police force, as well as the local merchants (the ever-reliable Danny Glover as the hardware store owner, the ever-mustachioed Caleb Jones as the gas-station/horror memorabilia shop-keep, and the ever-mysterious Tilda Swinton (as the possibly Scottish undertaker who is Not of This Town and is on a mission to “accumulate local information”), events teeter on, slowly and lugubriously, to the doomed showdown in the town cemetery.
I never thought I’d see the day that I’d recommend a Jim Jarmusch movie. While I’ve always respected him as a filmmaker for doing things differently, I’ve never been one to much enjoy what he was up to (barring a handful of the vignettes in Coffee and Cigarettes). However, any artist that can make a jab at himself (delivered by Bill Murray at his world-weariest, no less) is all right in my book. And The Dead Don’t Die is an unequivocally fun movie that takes jabs at other worthy targets: hardcore horror buffs, small town America, and, in particular, hipsters (“…with their ‘irony'”). All the pokes are light and playful, though, as if Jarmusch has come to realize that the many people in the world who aren’t his fans (and the greater number who have no idea who he is) are people, too.
Indeed, the whole thing is worth it just to hear nerd-cop Adam Driver matter-of-factly remark, “I have an affinity for Mexicans.”
WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:
“The Dead Don’t Die very occasionally seems flippant and unfinished, an assemblage of ideas, moods and prestigious actors circling around each other in a shaggy dog tale. But it’s always viewable in its elegant deliberation and controlled tempo of weird normality – and beautifully photographed in an eerie dusk by Frederick Elmes.”–Peter Bradshaw, The Guardian (contemporaneous)