The Dead Don’t Do Subtext

The Dead Don’t Die (Jim Jarmusch, 2019)

Jim Jarmusch is evidently one of those low budget indie auteur who both builds an ensemble around him and persuades A-List stars in search of artistic credibility to work for him (presumably for scale). A couple of years ago he cast the divine Tilda Swinton in a misjudged vampire film, Only Lovers Left Alive and now he shifts to the zombie film to pastiche.

So Bill Murray and Adam Driver (best known as Darth Emo, but also star of Paterson) are two cops in a small town populated by the likes of Danny Glover and Steve Buscemi and their colleague Chloë Sevigny. We drive past all the landmarks of the town, and are laboriously introduced to each denizen.

Oh and there’s hermit and narrator Tom Waits, the first to notice strange things going on.

The sun won’t set. Mobile phones won’t work. And the dead won’t stay dead.

It is fairly quickly clear that we are echoing George Romero’s Dead cycle of movies and the undead gravitate to their desires they had when they were still alive — alcohol, coffee, power tools, guitar music and so on.

It is almost as if it is a satire on consumer society.

In case we don’t get this, Driver hints at this and Waits explains it. It’s foregrounding the subtext to Romero’s films…

… Except that Romero knew he was doing this.

We’re left with a comedy that is rarely funny and a horror film that is never scary. One subplot fizzles out before it can get going (aside from its intertextual references) and one that is abandoned midflow, and Tilda is not exactly beamed down into the movie but beamed out. She is, as always, a beacon of joy, but not enough to save the movie.

What does almost save the film is deadpan Driver, whose character has a Star Wars key ring and repeatedly tells us “This is definitely going to end badly”, although the line ought to be “I have a bad feeling about this.” For reasons that make metafictive sense, but is purely indulgent, he thinks he knows how the film is going to end.

The film is littered with lovely touches, so if you spot the name SAMUEL FULLER on a grave stone you might love this film. But Joe Dante would have had more gravestones and did this kind of thing better, if only because he made comedies that took the horror seriously.

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