As Dead as a Pan
If you had asked me to come up with a list of actors I would expect to see pump-actioning and machete-swinging their way through a mob of zombies this year, I think it would be reasonable to say that neither Adam Driver or Bill Murray would have been particularly near the top of it, and yet this is what we find ourselves seeing during Jim Jarmusch's The Dead Don't Die. Is it therefore the case that this film is a particularly odd one, or simply the case that zombie films have become so ubiquitous everyone is bound to end up in one?
Well, I'm not sure about the latter part – it's starting to feel a bit silly talking about 'the current boom in zombie movies', considering it's been in progress for the vast majority of the current century, but on the other hand there hasn't been a major English-language entry in the genre for a bit. The Dead Don't Die is a fairly odd movie, though. Here is where I make one of my occasional confessions and admit that, feted independent American film-maker though he is, I have never seen a Jarmusch movie before. I think I came fairly close to seeing Ghost Dog and Only Lovers Left Alive, but seeing films isn't like playing horseshoes – 'fairly close' means nothing in this context.
Therefore I have no idea how representative the new film is of Jarmusch's output, although I can at least be confident about saying that, up to a point, it does a reasonable job of looking and sounding like a movie by the late George A Romero (who is duly acknowledged in the credits). We find ourselves in the small country town of Centerville, apparently 'a nice place to live' according to its own publicity, in the company of police chief Cliff (Murray) and his deputy Ronnie (Driver). Something odd seems to be in the air – the times of the sunrise and sunset are a bit off, and Ronnie's watch and cellphone have packed up too. Could it be connected to worrying news reports that fracking at both poles have accidentally thrown the Earth off its axis? (Shades of The Day The Earth Caught Fire.)
Well, it doesn't come as much of a surprise when the dead start clawing their way out of their graves and attacking the living. One of the first to do so is Iggy Pop, who makes a predictably convincing zombie given that he has looked rather cadaverous for many years. The cops, along with various other town residents and visitors, find themselves taking cover from the shambling horde, wondering what to do next (Ronnie repeatedly opines that it's all going to end badly). Could salvation lie with the town's eccentric sword-swinging undertaker (Tilda Swinton)?
There are many perplexing and distracting things about The Dead Don't Die, but the most perplexing and distracting one of the lot is Swinton and her character. Given that most of the film is a tongue-in-cheek cruise through B-movie tropes and other Americana, one has to wonder about the inclusion of a funeral director with a samurai sword, not really a stock character in this kind of film. But wait! It gets even more whimsical – Swinton doesn't just play a samurai-sword-wielding undertaker battling the undead, she does it while deploying a Highland Scots accent somewhat reminiscent of Maggie Smith in the Harry Potter films, and a peculiarly formal mode of speech reminiscent of no person ever. And Tilda Swinton's character is named Zelda Winston. It is enough to make one scratch one's head at some length.
Still, if nothing else, it does reveal Jarmusch's ability to get a good cast for this movie. Quite apart from Swinton, Murray and Driver, it also includes Chloe Sevigny as another cop, Steve Buscemi as a Trump-supporting racist farmer, Danny Glover as the local store owner, Rosie Perez as a news reporter (her character is named 'Posie Juarez'), Selena Gomez as a visiting hipster, and Tom Waits as 'Hermit Bob', an unhinged fellow who lives in the woods.
So, a good cast, and the zombie apocalypse is one of those scenarios which will always have potential provided you approach it with a new spin in mind. However, quite what Jarmusch had in mind when he came to make this film is difficult to discern – given the background of many of the actors, and some of the character names, you'd be forgiven for assuming it's meant to be a parody of the classic Romero zombie film – it certainly cleaves particularly closely to the formula, virtually paraphrasing dialogue about how the risen dead are compelled to seek out the things that mattered to them when they were alive – thus we get the spectacle of zombies shuffling about muttering about coffee and wi-fi.
The thing is that if so, it's a comedy where it feels like they've forgotten to include most of the jokes. There's the odd good invariably deadpan moment, but the film mostly just trundles along being neither particularly funny nor really trying very hard to be frightening. Everyone knows how this story goes, and it unfurls here pretty much as you'd expect (the odd apparent nod to Plan Nine from Outer Space notwithstanding). It's more like a pastiche than a parody or spoof – a technically competent one, but one with serious issues in the script department. There's a lot of cross-cutting between the different characters, which ends up more or less going nowhere – they tend to get the odd good moment, before the film seems to run out of things to do with them. One group of characters dies off-screen, another seems to get completely forgotten about. The film also seriously underperforms when it comes to the climax and ending.
The sense that this is a movie which has just been slapped together is only heightened by the inclusion of a bunch of jokes I can only describe as seeming lazy. There's an in-joke about Adam Driver being in the stellar conflict movies. At one point the film's theme song plays on the radio, and Murray's character wonders why it sounds so familiar – Driver's character tells him it's because it's the theme song of the movie. At one point Murray wonders about Driver's weird prescience and is told it is because he has read the whole script of the movie, not just the scenes he is in. If this is supposed to feel knowing and witty, it does not; it just feels rather tired.
As I say, this is not a complete disaster, but the odd good moment and a generally well-staged zombipocalypse do not make up for a film which often feels stilted and self-conscious, narratively baggy and no real sense of what it's supposed to be and why it's here. I am assuming most Jim Jarmusch movies are better than this one; it's certainly a disappointment as a zombie film.
Also This Week...
…The Matrix, back in cinemas on the occasion of its twentieth anniversary. (Reviewed hereabouts on the occasion of its 14th anniversary – no, me neither.) Age has done little to diminish the impact of the Wachowski siblings' visionary blend of philosophical science fiction and kinetic action cinema, which exploits inspired casting, a fiendishly clever script, and superb martial arts choreography for maximum effect. The central romance still feels a bit peremptory, it has inevitably become something of a period piece with its sort-of 1999 setting, and we do have those sequels to try and forget – but the lobby sequence alone makes up for any number of flaws. One of the best and most important films of recent years.