In the quiet small American town of Centerville, some strange occurrences are happening. Just when it’s supposed to be night outside, the sun is shining as if it’s the middle of the day. Animals are vanishing. Did I mention that polar ice caps are being so severely fracked that it’s adversely affecting the Earth’s axis? Yep, lots and lots of strange occurrences happening around Centerville. Police officers Ronald Peterson (Adam Driver) and Cliff Robertson (Bill Murray) are perturbed by such events and they only become even more concerned once two local citizens are slaughtered in a vicious fashion. Only a zombie could do such a slaying. Oh boy. This is not going to end well.
In order to separate itself from the hordes of zombie-themed comedies that have been released over the years, writer/director Jim Jarmusch makes sure there are plenty of ways for The Dead Don’t Die to stand out in a crowded field. For one thing, this is an ensemble piece. Peterson and Robertson are the characters we see the most, but much of The Dead Don’t Die hops around to the stand-alone perspectives of various Centerville citizens as they come to terms with the gradually escalating chaos happening around them. This allows for a whole bevy of famous names, like Steve Buscemi, Caleb Landry Jones and Selena Gomez, to appear playing various members of the town, many of whom, unfortunately, just aren’t all that funny or interesting as characters. Taking a Robert Altman approach to the events leading up to a zombie invasion is a fascinating idea that yields some successfully funny and even intense moments, but too many of the characters just aren’t all that intriguing to watch in their little subplots.
All these characters exist within a comedic approach that’s intentionally lackadaisical and subdued, the complete opposite of Edgar Wright’s traditionally zippy editing and filmmaking style found in fellow zombie comedy Shaun of the Dead. Sometimes, this approach comes together nicely, especially in the performance of Adam Driver, an actor whose typically excelled with subdued comedy in prior works by Noah Baumbach or Steven Soderbergh. Here, Driver gets some of the most humorous lines of the whole film by speaking tight compact sentences in an amusingly dry line delivery that works nicely as a contrast to all the zombie mayhem happening around him.
Similarly, Tilda Swinton’s performance also works within the uniquely laidback style of The Dead Don’t Die. Playing a new morgue employee who brandishes a samurai sword and eventually becomes a Scottish laidback version of expert zombie slayers like Alice from Resident Evil is such a zany concoction perfectly suited to Swinton’s gift as a performer to fully commit to whatever role she’s given and the quiet assuredness she lends the part is quite funny. Unfortunately, Driver and Swinton, as well as Tom Waits as a hermit character who serves as a one-man Greek Chorus of sorts for the proceedings, are the only major instances of The Dead Don’t Die really managing to get top-notch comedy out of the individual members of its sprawling cast.
Whereas Driver, Swinton and Waits get delightfully kooky individuals to inhabit, the rest of the cast are handed surprisingly empty parts. Chloe Sevigny is around to just be terrified of the zombies, for instance, Danny Glover’s character has no real personality to speak of and Bill Murray perhaps commits a bit too hard in his sleepy performance as a weary older police officer. The Dead Don’t Die spends much of its runtime just focusing on the individual zany characters who have no idea what undead armageddon is about to transpire, but the trouble is too many of the characters just aren’t all that interesting to watch. A whole bunch of star power can’t automatically make rote or unfunny characters captivating.
Jim Jarmusch’s script fares better in terms of chilled out comedy when it comes time in the third act for the zombies to show up and start wreaking havoc. No surprise that the part of The Dead Don’t Die where its unique style of comedy works best is also where Tilda Swinton gets the lion’s share of her screentime. This section of the film also contains a number of small digressions that takes things into the realm of unexpected weirdness which is always welcome. In these moments, The Dead Don’t Die comes off as someone trying to do a laidback and less visually resplendent vision of what a Wes Anderson take on a George A. Romero movie would be. Such moments are paired up with discouragingly lifeless scenes that see The Dead Don’t Die struggling to get its specific flavor of comedy just right. One has to admire that an oddball project like this exists, especially in the middle of a summer moviegoing season packed o the gills with mechanically assembled sequels, but one also wishes that The Dead Don’t Die also came together in a more cohesive and consistently amusing fashion.