The film’s greatest success is its all-star cast, who I felt often elevated a lazy script (more on that below). Veteran Jarmusch collaborators Bill Murray and Adam Driver take the lead as small-town cops doing their best to deal with the zombie outbreak. As a result, the pair share almost all their scenes and develop a surprisingly organic rapport. Driver commits to the role of the overeager Ronnie, immediately assuming the dead have risen at the first sign of gore, while Murray plays it straight and imbues his Chief Cliff with a calm indifference; in one scene, he literally states that he is past retirement age as if to complete the trope. Most viewers will have seen this dynamic before, but Murray’s charm and Driver’s ability to immerse himself ensure the cliché doesn’t feel unwelcome.
Ronnie and Cliff patrol the modest middle America town of Centerville, a setting which is thinly sketched in order to focus on its quirky residents. These include a forest-dwelling hermit (Tom Waits), and a Scottish mortician with some badass katana skills (Tilda Swinton, of course). Even minor roles such as the racist farmer Frank (Steve Buscemi) have some great one-liners and complete our picture of Centerville, making us want to spend more time there. However, the sheer number of characters is excessive given Jarmusch’s tendency to deemphasise story. In lieu of a traditional plot and subplot/s, THE DEAD DON’T DIE cuts between several groups of people who exchange silly small talk, or ominous remarks about how strange things have been recently. While there’s no inherent problem with this, the extended zombie attack sequence comprising the film’s second half means that some characters are simply forgotten about. For instance, the Centerville Juvenile Detention Center (sic) and its inmates eventually disappear and aren’t mentioned afterwards.
Though I won’t spoil the cause of the zombie outbreak, suffice it to say that none of the characters or even Centerville itself are directly involved. Subsequently, placing most of the scenes with zombies in them towards the end of the film removes any semblance of build-up. The actors’ delivery and expressions perfectly convey the humour in Jarmusch’s dialogue, but the rest of the script feels like it’s spinning its wheels in anticipation for the end. This is most clearly seen in the juvie scenes I mentioned above, as well as Selena Gomez being given nothing to do whenever she’s on screen.
Furthermore, THE DEAD DON’T DIE feels annoyingly smug at times, particularly during the countless mentions of its theme song of the same name by Sturgill Simpson. As someone who’s not a big country music fan, I was surprised to find myself enjoying the song when it first played over the opening credits. Yet Jarmusch insists on shattering the fourth wall throughout the film to draw attention to it, in some cases ruining an otherwise fine joke. For instance, the song plays on the radio as Ronnie and Cliff are driving and the latter wonders why it sounds so familiar, only for Driver to look into the camera and say, “because it’s the theme song”. Somehow this isn’t even the most frustrating fourth wall break in the film, as Murray and Driver later discuss “Jim” and the script at length. There’s a time and place for this technique, in fact, Ronnie’s Star Wars keychain is a perfect example. Ultimately though, I just wanted the film to get on with it.
Despite the cast’s best efforts, I simply don’t think this was the right use for the characters and setting. The zombies are an awkward afterthought, yet paradoxically take up so much time that any deeper satire of small-town America is left unfinished. Although Jim Jarmusch has never made universally accessible films, THE DEAD DON’T DIE is definitely only for diehard fans.