Saturday, June 29, 2019

The Dead Don't Die

Spoiler-free!

*Puts some Sturgill Simpson on Spotify*

In this plotless and super dry zom-com, Adam Driver, Bill Murray, and Chloë Sevigny are small town cops in way over their heads when the dead come back to life... due to the Earth being thrown off its axis... due to fracking on the poles. It's always the fracking. Tom Waits as a woods-dwelling hobo man and a strange-acting Tilda Swinton seem to know what's going on though. And Adam seems to get it too: This is gonna end badly.

Doesn't mean you can't have a good time until then...

To say it's dry and has no plot isn't a criticism, though. I quite liked director Jim Jarmusch's last film (also with Adam Driver) Paterson, which was similarly dry and similarly without much happening plot-wise. Where that movie excels though, is in character. The Dead Don't Die is more about the zombies' character than the living people's. And that's where it falls apart for me. The movie wants to draw a parallel between the fictional zombies and real humans who are slogging through life, not much more than animated bodies. Sure; 90% of zombie movie in existence make that comparison. This movie only seems to believe that the only viable solution is to... not... be... human... anymore.

Like as humans we're doomed to be "zombies." And it's cool for a horror film to be fatalist of course, even a comic one, but it sure does put a lot of effort into showing the fate without showing the alternative. Of the three people who can "see behind the curtain" which is the role-model? If there is no role model, then how is the message expected to come across? There's a warning sermon, but no helpful applications offered. The characters are completely undeveloped to the point of self-awareness when the movie point-blank refuses to give one a backstory. Other times you think relationships and dynamics will be developed... but then the zombies intervene.

It's like the whole movie was a neat set up that ends before it ever gets going.

Still the cast is great fun as they have a competition over who can make their face the most dead-pan as they deliver punchlines. For my money, Adam Driver wins, but Bill Murray is never second-rate in a dry delivery either. The real problem with the comedy is that there simply isn't enough of it to go around. With such a big cast and so many irrelevant characters but a normal shortish run time, you barely get a taste of your favorite before the credits roll and it's all over. Plus, only about a third consists of comedy when there's a gruesome zombie murder quota to fill and a message to chuck across.

Overall it was very much what I expected so I was able to enjoy it as it came -- only one point was a surprise, and that was an element of the tone. It gave off an impression of being a project done out of a desire to goof around and have a little fun over trying to be a "real" movie. Basically no story, no character arcing; just a lot of wandering around and seeing where you are, then going off the rails to try something else. With that in mind, it's hard to blame it for not being a serious movie that plays by the rules. If it didn't even want or try to. It's not saying, "I'm great because I'm different"; it's saying, "I'm different because I was doing my thing," and never claims any level of greatness at all.

So I'll take what I enjoyed and forget the rest!

The Dead Don't Die has a reputation for being politically charged, and it's clearly made out of frustration over the current Presidency, but goes so far over the top that no particular ideology is required to enjoy. Fracking is an easy fictional troublemaker, and Steve Buscemi's hat hilariously and nonsensically reads, "Keep America White Again" as he awkwardly explains to Danny Glover that when he said the coffee was too black, he meant it was too strong. When he bites the dust, Tom Waits muses that you reap what you sow, and then takes a bite of a chicken he stole from him. Political satire? Or parody of political satire? Take it as you like.

When you're a movie character in the zombie apocalypse, you let off steam by killing zombie heads; when you're a film director, you do it by writing it into your movies starring your friends. When you're famous, the finished product gets into theaters. And when you're a film fan, you can see it, and maybe get a kick out of it too. It might end up badly, but even so, it's not the end of the world.

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