Some day, perhaps, THE DEAD DON’T DIE (2019) might be remembered as a masterpiece of understated humor and satire.
Alas, today is not that day.
THE DEAD DON’T DIE is a new horror comedy starring Bill Murray and Adam Driver that is being marketed as a zombie comedy, but you know what? It’s not really a zombie movie. Oh, there are zombies in it, but it’s the most non-zombie zombie movie I’ve ever seen, which is not going to make it a hit among horror fans.
In fact I’d wager to guess that most horror fans will not like this movie. Even though it mentions George Romero and throws in a few Easter eggs here and there, it largely ignores the zombie films which have come before it. Sometimes this can be a good thing, but in this case it is not.
Heck, since its comedy really isn’t all that biting— heh, heh!— comedy fans aren’t going to be too keen on this one either. Yup, I’m going to go out on a—limb— and predict that this one will not perform all that well at the box office.
That being said, THE DEAD DON’T DIE is not an awful film. I actually liked it, in a weird offbeat sort of way, and that’s because at the end of the day THE DEAD DON’T DIE is satire, that just happens to have zombies in it. It’s the type of comedy that Bob Newhart would have made in his heyday, with Murray filling in here for the Newhart role. It has a few pointed things to say about our present day society, but the writing is never as sharp, and the direction never as tight as a movie like this needs it to be. Even when the film breaks the fourth wall, the humor still struggles. Yet, there are places where it works and works well.
In THE DEAD DON’T DIE, Police Chief Cliff Robertson (Bill Murray) and his fellow officers Ronnie Peterson (Adam Driver) and Mindy Morrison (Chloe Sevigny) usually have nothing more urgent to do in their small town of Centerville than ask their local Hermit Bob (Tom Waits) whether or not he stole chickens from the annoying farmer Frank Miller (Steve Buscemi). But suddenly things grow strange.
The daylight lasts longer than usual, watches and cell phones stop working, and soon the dead start to rise and begin eating the townspeople. The culprit? The controversial use of global fracking has affected the earth’s rotation, and as a result all these freaky things start happening. Supposedly. The people aren’t sure, because the government cites global fracking as safe and accuses scientists of spreading false information. Sound familiar?
How Robertson and his fellow officers react to these horrific happenings is the story told in THE DEAD DON’T DIE. Trouble is, the biggest way they react is by standing around and doing nothing. So much for compelling storytelling!
THE DEAD DON’T DIE was written and directed by Jim Jarmusch, a director known for his deadpan style. Jarmusch is tenacious here with his slow-moving satire, which might be the film’s greatest asset, that it never deviates from its slow pace, its unassuming humor, and its coy messages on society.
The satire in THE DEAD DON’T DIE is there. It’s just not always all that clear. For instance, Steve Buscemi’s Farmer Frank wears a red cap which reads “Keep America White Again,” a slogan which in itself satirizes the modern-day message of the Trump presidency as well as poking fun at the overall intelligence of his followers with its grammatically incorrect slogan. It appears ever so briefly and is easily missed. Yet it got a good chuckle from the audience.
Speaking of which, I saw THE DEAD DON’T DIE in a full theater in which the majority in the audience were college-aged folks. It was a lively audience that was laughing and having fun even before the movie started. And they were generous with their laughter throughout the movie, laughing much more than I did.
As mentioned, the film breaks the fourth wall on more than one occasion, sequences where Murray and Driver discuss the theme song and even the script. But it’s not the type of lively screenplay that is filled with playful asides a la the works of Woody Allen or Mel Brooks. In fact, there is very little that is lively about the entire movie. There’s about as much energy surrounding this flick as a heavy-duty afternoon nap.
There are also some fun little in-jokes, like Adam Driver carrying a STAR WARS key chain, a direct nod to his role in the new STAR WARS trilogy.
A lot of the humor doesn’t work. The running gag about the theme song wasn’t funny at the beginning and it’s even less funny by the end.
There’s a GREAT GATSBY gaffe that I’m still not sure I understand. A character mentions she loves the name Zelda because of Zelda Fitzgerald, who she says was Jay Gatsby’s wife in THE GREAT GATSBY, but Gatsby wasn’t married, and his love interest in the novel was Daisy Buchanan. Zelda Fitzgerald was the wife of Gatsby author F. Scott Fitzgerald. It’s possible I’m missing something here, but since what I’m missing isn’t obvious, such a gaffe just comes off as lazy writing.
Speaking of lazy, there’s a heck of a lot of inaction going on here. Characters stand around and talk, and talk, and talk. There’s one sequence after the first zombie kill in the diner when Chief Robertson discovers the bodies, that features as its gag people saying the same lines when they see the bodies for this first time. Admittedly, this is funny, but it takes place during a sequence where we have to watch each character drive up to the diner, casually take their time entering and exiting before saying the aforementioned line. S-l-o-w.
There are a lot of satirical moments poking fun at today’s society, and most of these work, although they are exceedingly understated.
The horror elements are also downplayed here, and while there are some gory sequences, this one doesn’t really hold its own as a horror movie. There are also scenes of dialogue where the characters in a panic go on about the zombie epidemic, and they go on at lengths which aren’t supported by events in the movie. There’s basically one zombie scene before the film’s third and final act.
There’s also an annoying way the zombie’s die, as when they are killed they give off a puff of smoke. What is this, TWILIGHT?
THE DEAD DON’T DIE does have a terrific cast, which is one of its strengths, and they all play quirky characters.
Bill Murray is fine as Chief Robertson. He certainly has been funnier in his career, but he handles the deadpan humor well, again channeling a Bob Newhart vibe. There’s also an in-joke when his character breaks the fourth wall and asks Adam Driver if they are simply improvising here, since Murray began his career with improv, and is known to have improvised in some of his movies. Then again, maybe it simply means that Murray and Driver weren’t working with a script!
Adam Driver also nails the deadpan humor as Officer Peterson. I increasingly enjoy Driver in the movies, and while his biggest role to date has been the conflicted villain Kylo Ren in the new STAR WARS trilogy, I’ve enjoyed him more in such films as BLACKKKLANSMAN (2018) and LOGAN LUCKY (2017). He was probably my favorite part of THE DEAD DON’T DIE, and he certainly got the most laughs, but he also didn’t have to try very hard. The audience laughed when he showed up at a crime scene driving a miniscule car.
Chloe Sevigny is very good as Officer Morrison, and Tilda Swinton has the most unusual role as local mortician Zelda Winston, who’s an eccentric character whose idiosyncracies sometimes generate laughter and other times misfire. She’s the one character in the film who is a badass zombie killer, which provide Swinton with her best moments in the movie.
Steve Buscemi is on hand as the irritable farmer Frank, and he has a couple of comic moments, but for a guy like Buscemi, that’s less than you expect. The cast also includes Danny Glover, Selena Gomez, Caleb Landry Jones, and Tom Waits as Hermit Bob.
Hermit Bob’s line at the end of the film that we live in a crazy world kinda sums up the point of the film, that this world is a crazy place, and that zombies rising from the dead isn’t any nuttier than things we are already seeing.
As I said, one day this film may be remembered as a classic satire. But today, alas, due to its incredibly slow and lethargic pace and less than sharp writing, it’s going down in my book as a well-intentioned look at the crazy world in which we live that lacked the necessary energy and oomph to successfully make its case.
It also doesn’t help itself in that it’s not much of a zombie movie, a fact that most likely will keep its potential fan base away from the theater.