The Sturgill Simpson theme song from The Dead Don't Die manages to become the star, despite much Jim Jarmusch quirkiness. The Stranger than Paradise director reteams with frequent collaborators Billy Murray and Tilda Swinton to craft a zombie movie that both pokes fun at and celebrates genre efforts like Night of the Living Dead and Zombie. Jarmusch, an independent filmmaker known for his leisurely, eccentric films, is not for everyone. Those films usually lack traditional narrative structure and instead seek to provide real-world forward progression for viewers. Such is the case for The Dead Don't Die, which is a minor work in the director's catalogue. The cast, which also includes Adam Driver, Tom Waits, Chloe Sevigny, Steve Buscemi, Danny Glover, Selena Gomez and RZA, is game for the playful material, and, while not much sticks in the memory other than the theme song, the film is mostly entertaining while in motion.
Set in Centerville, Pennsylvania, a "real nice place," The Dead Don't Die opens with Centerville police officers Cliff Robertson (Murray) and Ronnie Peterson (Driver) checking on a missing chicken. As they head back to the station the theme song plays, and the men remark that it should be dark at 8 p.m. Watches and cell phones stop working, pets and wildlife act strangely, and several juvenile detainees watch a report about the negative effects of polar fracking. Soon, the dead begin to reanimate, clinging to activities and dialogue from their pasts, and Centerville is plunged into a war between the living and undead. Colorful characters involved include sword-wielding undertaker Zelda Winston (Swinton), grouchy Hermit Bob (Waits) and hipster traveler Zoe (Gomez). All become entangled in the ensuing chaos, which unravels deliberately during the film's opening half.
There have been too many homages and parodies of Night of the Living Dead to name, and at times the genre feels overstuffed with unoriginal and overly serious retellings of the same story. Jarmusch, at least, handles this material with a light touch, offering tongue-in-cheek, fourth-wall-breaking humor throughout. The meta references to the theme song are complemented by Driver's Peterson telling Murray's Robertson that he knows things are going to end badly because Jim (Jarmusch) showed him the script. None of the action is to be taken seriously; Swinton's undertaker beheads the undead with brutal efficiency after offering to aid the officers in taking back the town. She borrows Peterson's convertible Smart car to aid in the hunt in a mildly amusing sight gag. Minor characters move in and out of frame without much consequence other than to chew scenery for a time. Little good comes to Gomez's Zoe or Glover and Buscemi's townsmen.
As a laidback ensemble piece resembling genre entries, The Dead Don't Die is moderately successful. It held my attention for 104 minutes; thanks largely to the humorously subdued back-and-forth between Murray and Driver. These are all talented actors, which Jarmusch obviously knows, but he does not exactly ask them to stretch their legs. The film's first half is more successful, and my interest waned as the film ramped up the action and dialed back the quirky humor in the second half. Perhaps the biggest criticism I have of The Dead Don't Die is that for such pedigree behind and in front of the camera, it barely resonates. When you're Jarmusch and have a couple of million bucks and famous friends, you can make fun, quirky, forgettable movies like this. A few people see them; most do not. As the undead discover here, life goes on.
The 1.78:1/1080p/AVC-encoded image offers appropriate depth and texture. Close-ups reveal intimate facial details, and wide shots are deep and crisp. The cool color palette is complemented by steady blacks and abundant shadow detail. Highlights are appropriate; skin tones natural; and colors nicely saturated. The digitally sourced image looks good in motion, and I did not notice issues with noise or artifacting.
The 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio mix offers ample ambient effects, LFE support for action moments, a weighty score, and appropriately balanced dialogue. The action effects pan the sound field, ambient effects surround the viewer, and element crowding is never an issue. French and Spanish 5.1 DTS dubs are included, as are English SDH, French and Spanish subtitles.
PACKAGING AND EXTRAS:
This single-disc release is packed in a standard case that is wrapped in a slipcover and includes a digital copy code. Extras include Bill Murray: Zombie Hunting Action Star (1:21/HD); Stick Together (2:47/HD), about the cast and director; and Behind the Scenes of The Dead Don't Die (5:14/HD); all of which provide decent remarks in a very short time slot.
Jim Jarmusch's quirky, forgettable The Dead Don't Die pays homage to genre efforts and offers a talented cast that does little besides have a fun vacation in Zombieland. Rent It.