Review: The Dead Don’t Die (2019)

Jim Jarmusch has always been an oddball director, with works ranging from his ultra-minimal breakthrough Stranger Than Paradise to successfully understated genre works like Dead Man and Only Lovers Left Alive. He has proven to have a certain range where he could work in any genre and add a certain twist only he can provide. The Dead Don’t Die is a suitably odd addition to his oeuvre, taking the zombie comedy and draining it to a dry husk.

The Dead Don’t Die appears beyond proper criticism, a work so dense it’s difficult to get a sense of what, exactly, Jarmusch is trying to accomplish. It’s an intentionally bad film, one where it’s a struggle to differentiate between knowing humor and legitimately failed jokes within that context. This is a film that cycles between several characters and disposes of them in largely unceremonious ways, and in at least one case seems to completely forget about a group.

There’s a certain juvenile edge to a lot of the humor; Adam Driver’s Officer Peterson (get it, because he was named Paterson in Jarmusch’s previous film?) has a tendency to break the fourth wall, and I can’t tell if this is supposed to be read as clever or taken as intentionally dumb. A lot of the humor can be summarized in this way; it feels as if certain lines are repeated to the point of annoyance. There are constant references to the theme song (by Sturgill Simpson), which perhaps could be a clever suggestion that they had a low budget and could only afford one original song and wanted to milk it for all it’s worth – but this is tedious the sixth time around.

Perhaps my problem is that The Dead Don’t Die runs off of an imitation of constraints, a forced low budget feeling while being absolutely loaded with stars. Is that part of the joke? That this movie obviously isn’t as bad as it looks since you can name the actors?

Loads of people make intentionally bad films, and they always lack the charm of the unintentional works that become cult classics. There’s no sense of heart involved, no sincerity. The six other Jarmusch films I’ve watched are all great; I can’t suspend my disbelief enough to believe the hokey presentation on display, which was never the point – the real sin here is that the film is rarely clever enough to do anything with that artifice.

We can call it satire, but what is it satirizing? Low budget horror movies? What’s the point of making fun of that? These works are largely passion projects of people with less opportunity than Jarmusch. Sure, he’s a king of the indie scene, but he’s also flexing with his casting here – he only makes these quieter works because he’s choosing to remain in that zone. It doesn’t help that he’s making fun of works that tend to carry unintentional humor – by satirizing that, he’s instead removing the source of comedy.

I almost feel this has to be a satire of the concept of satire. The specific kind of zombie film Jarmusch is tackling here is low-hanging fruit- there has to be an awareness that this is too easy of a target. The question is, do I want to believe Jarmusch is working on such a level when his other displays of meta-humor are so surface level? But if this is the case, wouldn’t those surface level failures be part of the overall joke?

Despite rarely finding this supposed comedy funny, I walked away with a more distinct reaction; complete and total bafflement. This is a feeling largely reserved for existentially surreal horror films, and that Jarmusch managed such a reaction purely through my failed attempts at reading what this film is trying to accomplish is truly astonishing.

I also don’t know if that feeling is worth much at all.

2.5 Stars Out of 5

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