Review: The Dead Don't Die
I experienced the Overlook Film Festival this year in New Orleans; I did plenty of drinking, eating, and walking outside in the blistering humanity. Oh, and of course, I watched a lot of movies over the four-day fest. It was a hell of a thing to walk out of the theater and into the annual Oyster Festival one block away. It was also pretty surreal watching the anthology movie Nightmare Cinema set in a haunted abandoned movie theater while sitting in a recently closed down and abandoned movie theater. And few things are going to top me watching my favorite film of the year, so far, on the big screen with a festival crowd — I’ll hopefully write more on One Cut of the Dead as soon as it hits Shudder later this year.
Going back to the beginning, my Overlook 2019 started with The Dead Don’t Die. After a day of daiquiri-drinking, a stop at Port of Call for a burger and an amazing baked potato, and one Verti Marte po boy later, I sat down at the Le Petit Theatre located in the French Quarter of New Orleans for the opening night film by Jim Jarmusch.
Set in a small town, the film focuses on the residents encounters with the undead as a zombie apocalypse unfolds. In the great tradition of George Romero, there’s plenty of blood and gore to be found, with socio-political themes permeating throughout. Right away we meet two local police officers, Chief Cliff Robertson (Bill Murray) and Officer Ronnie Peterson (Adam Driver), who are first aware of the odd nature of what’s happening in the town. Then there’s a fourth wall break that’s both hilarious and confounding; you realize just how aware these characters are in this zombie film.
The rest of the ensemble cast revels in the dialogue of Jarmusch’s script, delivering each line as dryly as you’d expect. There are a handful of subplots running at once; Steve Buscemi plays a MAGA-hat wearing, gun-toting dolt who tries to stop monsters from crossing into his property, Selena Gomez plays a young woman on a road trip with friends who ends up in the small town at the wrong time, and Danny Glover and Caleb Landry Jones try to hold up in a hardware store in one of the town’s last stands. The highlight is Tilda Swinton, playing a katana-welding mortician, who slices and dices her way through the zombie attack; in a film filled with the odd, she fits right in. Even the zombies are played by notables, like Carol Kane and Iggy Pop. But it’s Tom Waits who is the key to everything (rightfully so), as he ostensibly plays the observer to the chaos. As the audience’s proxy he tries to find meaning in the madness, but, of course, has trouble finding it.
The Dead Don’t Die takes the inevitable steps you’d expect to see in any zombie movie. What’s worthwhile is just how each character behaves and reacts to the violence — Adam Driver picks up a severed head, unphased, like it’s nothing at all. Chloë Sevigny plays another of the small town cops and it’s clear with each line read that she knows she’s a pawn in a b-movie. And while the alive end up being… not so alive anymore, the film crosses into truly bizarre territory. By the end you realize, through more fourth wall breaks, that there’s an inescapable level of control throughout. Through the dry, biting humour, there’s a cold embrace of realization that can only come from Jim Jarmusch by the film’s final line. The Dead Don’t Die is a fine zombie film, but thanks to the cast and the writer-director, it also has the heart of an indie film, pulsing with welcome nihilism — a sentiment we can all relate to in 2019.