Thursday 11 July 2019

The Dead Don't Die (USA 2019: Dir Jim Jarmusch)

In the quiet town of Centerville, USA - 'A real nice place' reads the sign on entering - things move very sleepily. At the local police precinct, officer in charge Chief Cliff Robertson (Bill Murray) is laconic and, frankly, bored, facing but not wanting retirement. His two officers, fatalistic Ronnie Peterson (Adam Driver) and nervous Mindy Morrison (Chloë Sevigny) don’t have a whole lot to do. Their only slight concern in the otherwise regular town is the strange presence of new funeral home mortician, zen mistress Zelda Winston (Tilda Swinton),

But things are about to change. Firstly, it's taking ages to get dark. Watches and phones stop working. There’s talk on the radio about the earth being slightly tipped off its axis due to widespread fracking. Secondly, at the local diner two staff have been savagely murdered, their bodies ripped apart and eaten by what the police think might have been one, possibly several animals. Actually the real culprits are two locals (Iggy Pop and Jarmusch regular Sara Driver), newly risen from the dead - one assumes because of the whole earth axis thing - and desirous of both human flesh and coffee – hence hitting the diner.

Robertson, Peterson and Morrison investigate and become aware that the local cemetery is indeed giving up its dead to roam the streets and attack at will. These zombies, rather like the ones in George Romero’s Dawn of the Dead (1978), hold on to some vestiges of their former life and are driven to revisit the places they knew when alive (the undead shambling outside a drugstore muttering ‘Xanax’ amuses, and there's a strangely tragic sequence with kids wandering around the detritus of a candy store looking lost and vulnerable).

The police of course have never seen anything like this. Morrison breaks down, Robertson just feels powerless, but Peterson acquires some inner strength: it is he who works out that the only way to kill the undead is through a ‘head shot’ and subsequently becomes rather proficient at this, much to the distaste of Morrison, who may have a certain attraction to the gawky police officer.

Sabre wielding oddball Zelda, briefly surprised when two of her dead charges wake up while on the morticians table, seems to have anticipated the return of the dead and takes on the mantle of chief zombie despatcher. And when a group of kids drive into town, described as 'hipsters' by the locals and surely cannon fodder for the zombies - in line with a million other undead films you’ve ever seen - the stage is set for a massive zombie slayathon.

I’ve probably made The Dead Don't Die sound more fun than it is. The first hour is well set up. There are the usual quirky characters found in Jim Jarmusch’s previous movies: Steve Buscemi plays the town bigot, complete with 'Make America White Again' baseball cap; Adam Driver as officer Peterson is suitably and typically awkward (his arrival on the scene in a Smart car, scrunched up inside in a vehicle clearly too small for him, may be the funniest shot in the film); Tom Waits as the almost feral woodlands dwelling Hermit Bob – who gets to narrate some of the film – looks very much like the Cowardly Lion from The Wizard of Oz (1939); Rosie Perez as the ‘say what you see’ TV reporter Posie Juarez is good value; but the star of the piece is flaxen haired be-robed Swinton (her character name, like that of Perez, a kind of mangling of her real one). Zelda’s Scottish brogue contrasting with her glacial features, stilted, sudden movements and odd speech (seeing Peterson’s Star Wars key ring she comments “Ah. Excellent fiction” and describing herself as an "accumulator of local information") makes one suspect she might not be entirely human.

But sadly Jarmusch’s film, once set up, does not know where to go. The zombie attack scenes are initially well staged (the despatched undead break into a shower of black dust rather like the vampires in Buffy the Vampire Slayer) but there's an increasing sense of purposelessness, and the realisation that Jarmusch's movie is maybe just him having fun with some friends (in contrast to his more substantial 2013 take on the vampire movie in Only Lovers Left Alive). There's nothing wrong in that of course, but the director's reheating of themes previously visited by others and liberally referencing those movies within the script (a car which looks like Johnny's vehicle in the first scene of Night of the Living Dead is described as "very George Romero") gradually turns The Dead Don't Die into an increasingly inert homage to some much better movies. I mean, Romero offered us the conclusion that the zombies in Dawn of the Dead are basically us in a different form, but he made that point over 40 years ago. There's some fourth wall breaking along the way which assures the audience that the whole thing is probably a meta directorial in joke, but by then we've wearied of the lack of pace, the plodding set pieces and, well, the point of the thing. Disappointing.

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