Who doesn’t love a good zombie movie? They’re a mainstay of cinema, dating back almost a century to the 1930s. When infused with comedy, they offer new potential for enjoyable entertainment (‘Shaun of the Dead’, ‘Zombieland’), but all too often stumble (‘Scouts Guide to the Apocalypse’, ‘Zombie Strippers’). The latest edition to this very niche genre, ‘The Dead Don’t Die’, is a unique offering, standing apart from its predecessors. Coming to us less than a month after premiering at Cannes, its Australian debut at the Sydney Film Festival is a special opportunity to check out the (fittingly) thirteenth film from indie director Jim Jarmusch.
Something strange is happening in the town of Centerville. The sun is still shining long after it should have set, technology is going haywire, and animals seem to have disappeared completely... and that’s all before zombies start appearing. It’s up to Chief Cliff Robertson (Bill Murray) and Officer Ronnie Peterson (Adam Driver) to save the town - but who will survive? The officers? The odd mortician Zelda Winston (Tilda Swinton)? Nerdy gas station attendant Bobby (Caleb Landry Jones) and hardware store owner Hank (Danny Glover)? The Cleveland hipsters (Selena Gomez, Austin Butler and Luka Sabbat)? Racist farmer Frank (Steve Buscemi)? Or maybe Hermit Bob (Tom Waits)?
The answer is, probably not. The body count on this film is damn high, and utilises every possible weapon, big and small. This is a zombie film, but not as you know it - it has a deadpan sense of humour and quirky style. This helps to land the visual jokes; even though it’s forewarned, nothing can prepare you for Officer Ronnie driving up to a crime scene in a convertible Smart car, or Zelda Winston’s unique makeup stylings for the deceased. Even when it comes to the bludgeoning of the undead, it’s all portrayed so ridiculously that you can’t help but snicker.
The film is an absurd mix of genres. Whether it’s Adam Driver breaking the fourth wall - on multiple occasions - or the slaughtering the undead followed by a deadpan quip, there’s no end to the moments of amusement. Even the zombies get their share of laughs - gravitating towards things they enjoyed during life, they wander about groaning “coffee”, “Snapple” and even “Chardonnay”. Nevertheless, it’s also a loving tribute to the zombie genre, particularly George A. Romero’s classic ‘Night of the Living Dead’.
This is a straight-and-out Jim Jarmusch film, shot plainly and simply to allow his screenplay and the acting talents to shine through. He utilises comedy standards like repetition of jokes, but within the boundaries of the world Jarmusch has created, they land perfectly again and again. It’s also great to see creative partnerships being repeated; in addition to reuniting with DoP Frederick Elmes (‘Night on Earth’, ‘Paterson’, ‘Broken Flowers’) and editor Affonso Gonçalves (‘Only Lovers Left Alive’, ‘Paterson’), the filmmaker previously worked with Adam Driver, Tilda Swinton, Iggy Pop and Bill Murray in his films ‘Paterson’, ‘Only Lovers Left Alive’, ‘Gimme Danger’ and 'Broken Flowers' respectively.
This is a zombie film, but not as you know it - it has a deadpan sense of humour and quirky style.
The jaw-dropping collection of actors is referred to as "the greatest cast ever disassembled", and they’re not wrong. Driver and Murray have a great on-screen partnership; the young officer’s pessimism may grate on the should-have-retired-two-years-ago police chief’s nerves, but they make a formidable undead-fighting duo. Buscemi is also wonderful as the unruly farmer, taking advantage of his limited screen time perfectly. But the crown of this film must go to Tilda Swinton; she is so peculiar and so unconventional that every moment she’s on screen is a delight. Her talents know no bounds, and it appears that idiosyncratic zombie comedies are not excluded - her pitch-perfect performance is one for the ages.
The film does have its imperfections. Female Officer Mindy Morrison (Chloë Sevigny) is certainly lacking the bravery and level-headedness of her male counterparts, which is a somewhat disappointing and almost unnecessary element in 2019. There’s also an entire storyline with three kids in juvenile detention who break out, yet we never learn what happens to them.
These minor quibbles aside, ‘The Dead Don’t Die’ is a luxuriously paced, wittily gory zombie comedy. It’s part social commentary, part homage to cinema, and all ridiculous. With yet another pleasing genre film on offer from Jim Jarmusch, you’d be dead right to want to check it out.