Thursday, July 11, 2019

It Came From The Cineplex: The Dead Don't Die

The Dead Don't Die was written and directed by Jim Jarmusch. 

Jarmusch previously wrote You Are Not I. He wrote and directed Permanent Vacation, Stranger than Paradise, Down By Law, Mystery Train, Night On Earth, Dead Man, Ghost Dog: The Way Of The Samurai, Coffee And Cigarettes, Broken Flowers, The Limits Of Control, Only Lovers Left Alive and Paterson

As you can tell from that resume, Jarmusch is an indie filmmaker whose movies are typically languid, low-key affairs that are short on plot but on long on mood and atmosphere. His characters tend to sit or drive around while slowly revealing their personalities through drawn-out, banal conversation.

The Dead Don't Die is exactly what I expected from a Jim Jarmusch zombie movie— slow, mildly humorous and filled with bizarre characters. His fingerprints are all over every frame, and I'd have recognized it as his work even if I hadn't seen his name in the credits.

The film has an absolutely amazing cast, including Bill Murray, Adam Driver, Tilda Swinton, Chloe Sevigny, Steve Buscemi, Danny Glover, Carol Kane and Tom Waits. Many of them have previously worked with Jarmusch before. They give it their all, but unfortunately there's just not much for them to work with script-wise.

Jarmusch packs the film with concepts and ideas, but they're all half-baked and incredibly vague. The story meanders from one scene to the next with no clear direction, subplots are set up but never resolved and in one case characters literally run right out of the movie. It's like he shot the film from a rough outline rather than a script.

For me the funniest part of the film is watching critics scrambling to make sense of it. After all, zombie movies have always been used as metaphors for society's ills, so if an indie darling like Jim Jarmusch makes one, it must have some incredibly relevant hidden meaning, right?

Wrong! Film school rejects can search all they want, but the cold hard truth is there just ain't nothing there. If anything, Jarmusch seems to be actively mocking fans of the zombie genre with this movie, which is always a classy touch by any director.

So far the film's made a paltry $10.2 million against its $10.3 million budget (most of which I'm sure went to the movie's cast). Believe it or not, this is probably the highest grossing film of Jarmusch's forty year career!


The Plot:

In the small town of Centerville, Chief Of Police Cliff Robertson (played by Bill Murray) and Officer Ronnie Peterson (played by Adam Driver) are on patrol. They enter a local forest where they confront Hermit Bob (played by Tom Waits), who's been accused of stealing chickens from Farmer Miller (played by Steve Buscemi). On the way back to the station, Cliff notes the sun's still up, even though it's well past 8 pm. Ronnie comments that his watch and cellphone have stopped working. 

At the local diner, Farmer Miller, hardware store owner Hank Thompson (played by Danny Glover) and Fern the waitress discuss the strange goings-on. Over at the Centerville Juvenile Detention Center, three teen inmates named Geronimo (?), Olivia and Stella watch a news report concerning "polar fracking," which scientists claim has altered the Earth's rotation.

Elsewhere, Farmer Miller's animals have all disappeared, as have Moonlight Motel owner Danny Perkins' cats.

Cliff and Ronnie return to the police station. Officer Mindy Morrison (played by Chloe Sevigny) is unnerved by the fact that town drunk Mallory O'Brien has died in one of their jail cells, and her body won't be picked up till the next morning. Cliff offers to take the night shift and let Ronnie and Mindy go home for the evening.

At the Ever After Funeral Home, bizarre new undertaker Zelda Winston (played by Tilda Swinton) practices with a samurai sword in a back room (?).

Later that night in the local cemetery, two zombies dig their way out of their graves and wander towards town. They stagger into the diner, where they violently kill Fern and Lily, the cleaning lady. Hank finds them the next morning and calls the police. Cliff, Ronnie and Mindy arrive at the diner and investigate the grisly deaths. Ronnie says he believes zombies were responsible.

Meanwhile, three teens— Zoe (played by Selena Gomez), Jack and Zach drive into town and check into the Moonlight Motel. Cliff and Ronnie arrive at the motel and discuss the diner murders with Danny. Ronnie tells Zoe and her friends to lock their door and stay inside after dark.

Cliff and Ronnie investigate the cemetery, where they find several open graves. This convinces Cliff that Ronnie was right and zombies are indeed involved. The two then discuss the best way to eliminate the undead
 namely removing the head or destroying the brain. That night dozens more strangely undecomposed zombies rise from their graves and shamble around town. Hermit Bob watches from a distance. 

Cliff and Ronnie pick up zombie-killing supplies at the hardware store and return to the police station. Shortly afterward, Mallory O'Brien (played by Carol Kane) reanimates in her cell and walks into the office. Ronnie grabs a wicked-looking machete and decapitates her, much to Mindy's shock and horror.

At the funeral home, Zelda works on a couple of bodies. They also reanimate, so she decapitates them with her samurai sword. She then walks to the police station, where Cliff fills her in as to what's going on. For no good reason, Zelda suggests the three cops go out on patrol 
while she holds down the fort at the station. Against all logic and rationality they all agree.

The three policemen arrive at the motel, where they find a zombified Danny has killed Zoe and her friends. Ronnie casually severs their heads so their bodies can't reanimate.

Meanwhile, Hank and gas station owner Bobby Wiggins hide from the zombie horde in the hardware store. Eventually the zombies break through their barricade and overrun them. Farmer Miller's also killed by a zombie swarm outside his house. At the Juvie Center, zombies somehow get in and kill all the guards. Geronimo, Olivia and Stella manage to escape and run out of the movie, never to be seen again.

At the police station, Zelda types a series of numbers into the computer (?). She then borrows Ronnie's Smart car, weaving around zombies in the street.

Cliff, Ronnie and Mindy decide to return to the cemetery, because the script says so (literally!). The patrol car gets stuck when Cliff tries to run over a herd of zombies. They're then trapped as the undead surround the car and pound on the windows. Mindy freaks out when she sees her zombified Granny trying to get it. She opens the back door and runs out into the horde, where she's immediately killed.

Cliff and Ronnie discuss their situation in the patrol car. Zelda enters the cemetery, drawing the zombies toward her and away from the car. Instead of running for their lives, Cliff and Ronnie just sit and watch her. Zelda kills several zombies that approach her with her sword. Suddenly a UFO appears and hovers over her. It beams her up and flies away. Cliff and Ronnie stare in disbelief.

After a while they decide to make their stand. They exit the car and begin fighting the zombie horde. They manage to "kill" quite a few, but are eventually overwhelmed. Hermit Bob watches them die through his binoculars, saying, "The dead just don't wanna die today."


• Jim Jarmusch has never been a particularly subtle filmmaker, and that's never more evident than here.

Polar fracking is mentioned over and over in the film, and turns out to be the cause of the zombie apocalypse. I'm assuming this means Jarmusch is rabidly against the practice? Or not. It's entirely possible he just needed a perfunctory cause for the zombie apocalypse, and fracking was as good as any? There's no way to tell.

Later on Hermit Bob wanders through the forest and notices the fracking's caused a colony of ants to frantically scurry around their gigantic hills. At the end of the film he says, "Humanity's jacked up like those ants." Wow, that's deep, man!

Once the zombies rise, they shamble around moaning things like, "Chardonay," "Wifi," "Siri" and "Xanax." Gosh, a movie in which zombies are a metaphor for rampant, mindless consumerism! That's never been done before! Finally, a zombie film with a message!

• Speaking of polar fracking, it turns out it's a real thing! It involves pumping water, sand and chemicals into the ground at high pressure, to forcibly release oil from the surrounding rock formations. The process is controversial because it releases large amounts of methane, pollutes the water used in the process and can even cause earthquakes. 

Polar fracking was outlawed in 2016 by President Obama. In recent years massive new oil fields have been discovered in Alaska, prompting oil companies to try and find ways around the ban.

Despite the fact that it's real though, as far as I know it doesn't affect the Earth's axis or cause the dead to rise.

• Apropos of nothing, if you're wondering what Jim Jarmusch looks like, he has a cameo in 1996's Sling Blade. For some reason he appears as a fast food clerk who sells Carl some "french fried pertaters."

• Bill Murray plays Chief of Police "Cliff Robertson." Was his character named after the famous actor as a joke, or is it just a coincidence? 
Such is the humor of Jim Jarmusch— you're never quite sure if something's supposed to be funny or not.

In a similar vein, Rosie Perez plays similarly named reporter "Posie Jaurez," and Tilda Swinton plays "Zelda Winston." Ha, I guess?

• Bill Murray and Adam Driver have a fun, dry chemistry in the film. The movie definitely picks up considerably whenever the two are interacting. Too bad their efforts were in service of nothing though.

• At the beginning of the movie, Ronnie notices his cell phone's dead. A bit later when Zoe and her friends enter town, Jack says his phone doesn't have a charge either.

In the third act though we see several zombies walking around carrying fully functional phones, complete with lit screens. Whoops!

• RZA plays Dean, a delivery man for WUPS (pronounced "Woo P.S."). RZA is a founding member of Wu-Tang Clan, so I guess WUPS is a humorous reference to that? I think?

• There's exactly one scripted joke in the film that's actually somewhat funny. After Fern and Lily are killed, Cliff arrives at the diner to investigate. He goes in, looks at the grisly crime scene and exits. Hank asks, "What could have done it? A wild animal? Several wild animals?"

Ronnie then pulls up in his Smart car, enters the diner, sees the grisly crime scene and exits. He asks "What was it? A wild animal? Several wild animals?"

Mindy appears, enters the diner, sees the grisly crime scene and exits. She asks, "Was it a wild animal? Several wild animals?"

Behold the bone-dry humor of Jim Jarmusch, in which three people saying the exact same thing is the closest the movie gets to hilarity.

• OK, I'll admit I laughed a little when Cliff arrived at the crime scene in his ridiculously tiny Smart car.

• Zoe and her friends blow into town in a Pontiac LeMans, which is the exact same make and model driven by Barbara and Johnny in the 1968 classic Night Of The Living Dead.

For some reason, whenever the zombies are beheaded there's a puff of black smoke instead of a spurt of blood. Eh, I'm OK with that, as I assumed it was a stylistic touch.

• As I mentioned in the intro, the movie sets up numerous subplots that go absolutely nowhere. In every case, these scenes have so little bearing on the story that they could be removed entirely and it wouldn't affect the movie one bit. See for yourself:

— Early on there's some mild racial tension between Farmer Miller and Hank Thompson. Of course nothing ever comes of it. In fact they're never seen onscreen again after their initial scene!

— When Zoe and her friends enter town, she flirts with Bobby Wiggins, owner of the local gas station. They never interact again. A bit later there's some obvious sexual tension between Zoe and Ronnie, implying they may become the film's love interests. Nope! Zoe and her pals are killed in the third act.

— At one point Zelda Winston apparently sends a signal to her people, then kills several zombies as she drives to the cemetery. Once there, she's beamed aboard a mothership which takes off into space. At no time are we given any sort of explanation as to her behavior or where she's from. 

— Lastly, Geronimo, Olivia and Stella spend the entire movie in juvie, watching news reports and commenting on the zombie apocalypse. They eventually escape and run out of the movie as if they're embarrassed to be seen onscreen. As mentioned above, every one of their scenes could be removed without altering the plot in the slightest.

Did Jarmusch add these arcs as red herrings, so we'd be shocked when the various characters died? Or more likely, did he never intend for the storylines to pay off and was simply trolling the audience again?

• The worst part of the film by far were the scenes in which the characters actually discuss the fact that they know they're in a movie or are actors starring in a film.

As the opening credits roll, the soundtrack plays the theme song The Dead Don't Die, written and performed by Sturgill Simpson (whoever that is). A few minutes later Cliff and Ronnie are in their patrol car, driving through Centerville. Cliff turns on the radio and hears it again. He recognizes the song, and wonders why it sounds so familiar. Ronnie says, "Well, it's the theme song."

Then late in the third act, Cliff and Ronnie are trapped in their police cruiser, surrounded by hundreds of brain-hungry zombies. Ronnie utters his catchphrase, "This isn't going to end well," which he's said numerous times throughout the film. Cliff asks him how he knows that, and Ronnie replies that he's "read the script."

Jesus wept. This fourth wall-breaking was downright PAINFUL. I'm not kidding, these scenes actually made me uncomfortable, to the point where I was squirming in my seat. I just wanted to get up and leave. 

I have no idea why Jarmusch thought it'd be a good idea to torpedo his film by including these scenes. Did he think they were funny? I can assure him they were not. Nor were they clever or witty. They were just... agonizing.

The movie was tolerable up until the point where it punched a hole in the middle of the fourth wall, but after that it completely lost me.

The Dead Don't Die answers the cinematic question, "What would an art house zombie movie be like?" It's slow and meandering, with humor so dry it'd put the Sahara to shame. It also contains numerous subplots that go absolutely nowhere, which could have been cut without altering the plot in the least. As an added bizarre bonus, the characters seem to know they're in a movie (!). If you're a fan of the work of indie auteur Jim Jarmusch, then you'll likely enjoy it. If not, well, then you're in for a lonnnnng 103 minutes. I can't in good conscience recommend it, and give it a C.

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