I hate to tell you this, but if you’re looking for something well-written and meaningful from the director that brought you 2013’s stellar ONLY LOVERS LEFT ALIVE, you’re in for a slow-churning mob of undead disappointment.
THE DEAD DON’T DIE (or TDDD, as I’m calling it hereafter, because I can not be bothered typing it out every time, it’s just not worth that effort), is billed as a zombie comedy that takes place in Centerville, Ohio-or-Pennsylvania (it’s never stated which one for sure). Due to polar fracking, the axis of the earth shifts and the moon gives off an “evil energy” that reanimates the dead. Despite a trailer that fooled us all into believing this was going to be hilarious, artful, or something neat in-between, this movie gets around that whole discussion by simply sucking.
Characters don’t behave consistently, have any clear motivations or arcs, and generally don’t say or do too much in general. Long stretches of the film are used to introduce set pieces or characters that ultimately go unused or just don’t matter. In fact, if it weren’t for the desperate certainty I had that something would eventually turn out to have a point, TDDD would have been quite boring. Towards the end, a hermit named Bob tries to narrate some by-rote nonsense about how everyone is sort of a zombie already because of materialism, but the moral is not at all in tune with the rest of the movie, and merely comes off as trite and bizarre.
It’s also a tragic waste of an excellent cast: you’ll cry over who’s involved. Bill Murray, Adam Driver, Tilda Swinton, Chloë Sevigny, Steve Buscemi, Danny Glover, Carol Kane, Tom Waits, Iggy Pop, Selena Gomez, RZA, Sturgill Simpson… the list goes on. Perhaps the greatest offense here is that this movie repeatedly invokes the names of great undead films that came before it, from Romero to Nosferatu, and then blithely tramples over their legacy with a badly written and utterly pointless 103 minutes of the film.
Zombie fans will be disappointed, too – there’s no lovable camp or artful social commentary to be had here. There’s hardly even any blood, since zombies in this world merely spout some badly animated black dust in lieu of guts or fluids. For as packed a cast as it has, very little acting is actually done by anyone other than Glover. Driver’s deadpan delivery is definitely funny, but even his and Murray’s natural vibe can’t liven up this flick. It’s almost as if director Jim Jarmusch has too many idea to work with, but couldn’t pick one to commit to or do well, and so he settled for peppering his movie with hints of everything from Moby Dick to xenophobia, which makes for a long, trudging, infrequently funny and mostly frustrating viewing experience.
This brings me to something particularly confusing: Tilda freaking Swinton. I have to assume that we, as a collective audience, are decidedly over seeing her continue to specialize in the role of White Woman Appropriating Asian Culture, yes? I’d like to think that we are all tired of seeing white actors tout traditional East Asian attire, weaponry, hair, and makeup. Personally, I am Very Done with Swinton taking roles that serve as a hallmark of racial disrespect disguised as an emblem of ancient wisdom.
In TDDD, Tilda plays a heavily-accented Scottish undertaker named Zelda (who is consistently noted to be “foreign” by the American characters, then later revealed to be a literal alien, which in turn proves to have no bearing on the film’s plot or townspeople). She prays before a gigantic golden Buddha in her home, practices daily with a katana, wears her hair in taregami tradition, and sports Geisha-inspired makeup. She also applies vibrant Geisha makeup to the corpses in her care in the funeral home that she runs. In one scene, she drives pleasantly down a street full of zombies, taking care to avoid hitting them until she spots a zombie girl in a pleated plaid-print skirt. Zelda proceeds to chop off her head, saying, “that’s definitely not your tartan,” as if to scold her for appropriating her Scottish heritage (Swinton is actually part Scottish). She then proceeds to drive around the other zombies ahead.
Aspects like this make it apparent to even the most casual viewer that TDDD has nothing thematic to say at all, or that if it does, what it has to say is ill-advised, tacky, immensely problematic, or flat-out wrong. Frankly, I’m supremely disappointed that this movie not only proved to be about nothing, but couldn’t even bother to make me laugh with any kind of consistency. In truth, the only thing TDDD does well is prove that a great cast isn’t enough to salvage a poor script.