Indie filmmaker Jim Jarmusch puts his stamp on the zombie genre with the amusing The Dead Don’t Die. Bill Murray and a company of Jarmusch regulars provide the expected overdose of deadpan humor as the dead walk the earth terrorizing small-town America. With a fantastic A/V presentation and a small set of bonus features, Universal’s Blu-ray of The Dead Don’t Die is Recommended.
While a Jim Jarmusch film comes in many flavors, you’re always assured that what you’re getting has some depth, humor, and enough insanity to distance it from anything else remotely resembling it. Now, after a few jaunts into genre film territory, the indie/arthouse director has tackled zombies with The Dead Don’t Die. Assembling a dynamite cast should be enough for the director to churn out something great, right? With so many zombie comedies already out there referencing Romero and a smug sensibility, is there enough room in Hell for another one?
In the small town of Centerville, something is amiss. Daylight is stretching well into the evening. Clocks are stopping. Cell phones are losing power. News reporters are interviewing scientists about the shift in Earth’s axis which is allegedly connected to polar fracking operations. The moon displays a ghostly aura of purple light. Out on patrol is Chief Cliff Robertson (Bill Murray) and his by-the-books partner Ronnie Peterson (Adam Driver). As the strange occurrences mount, Cliff shrugs it off while Ronnie responds with “This is going to end badly”. While any horror movie can have a moment of ominous doom, it isn’t until Ronnie plays the song “The Dead Don’t Die” that we know who’s in on the joke. “It’s the theme song,” he says to a confused Cliff trying to remember where he heard the country tune before. We’ll learn as the film goes on just how much that song plays into the lives of the characters.
As expected, the dead begin rising from their graves, starting with “Coffee Zombie” played by Iggy Pop who descends on the local diner to feast on blood and, well, drink coffee. From here, we’re introduced to Centerville’s third police officer Mindy Morrison (Chloe Sevingy), who doesn’t believe Ronnie’s undead hypothesis until she’s faced with swarms of the recently deceased surrounding the police station. With the zombie apocalypse closing in on Centerville, the best advice given is to “Kill the Head.” From juvenile delinquents in lockup to the hipsters just passing through nobody is safe... unless you’ve already read the script. Have you? Did Jim give you a copy?
The Dead Don’t Die has a killer cast. Pun intended. We’ve got Tilda Swinton as Zelda, the Scottish katana-wielding mortician, RZA as a WU-PS delivery driver, and Steve Buscemi as grouchy Farmer Miller carrying the weight of the film’s anti-conservative bent with his red “Make America White Again” hat. Add in Selena Gomez, Danny Glover, and a memorable Tom Waits as Hermit Bob for a multi-generational cast hoping to escape the clutches of the undead. Performances are solid throughout, provided you are hip to the Jarmusch school of deadpan humor. It may seem like moments are wasted or certain actors aren’t used effectively but that’s just logic messing with you. The Dead Don’t Die not only references itself constantly, but the fourth wall was never even built. It’s a film that doesn’t really care what you think. Cool, huh?
The film is comically taking aim at greedy corporations and the government for ruining the world. From Miller’s red hat to the polarizing issue of fracking, Jarmusch and company aren’t mincing words here. However, this isn’t a political lecture but rather broad strokes about the fate of civilization. When the film isn’t referencing The Night of the Living Dead, it’s piggybacking on Romero’s theme of the decline of our civilization into mindless modern desires. Jarmusch’s zombies mutter things like “Wi-Fi”, “Free Cable”, and “Xanax” to update the references. This connection between a Romero zombie tone/homage and an updated political aim allows the melancholic film to easily gesture towards an apparent social decline in America.
Unfortunately, The Dead Don’t Die is gonna go down sour for some viewers. I can feel that most audiences will have trouble navigating the film’s purpose and direction with their established notion that zombie movies are fast-paced intense productions. Here scenes run long and unhurried. Characters literally in the thick of blood and guts do their best to downplay the horror. I’ll admit I had a hard time caring about the characters when they themselves admit to being in a Jim Jarmusch movie. “After all I’ve done for that guy. What a dick” is how Bill Murray responds when he learns Adam Driver received an early copy of the script. Indeed.
The Dead Don’t Die is a great collection of interesting vignettes set during the zombie apocalypse but, as a whole meta-narrative on the genre, it struggles a bit to keep the head connected to the lurching body.
Vital Disc Stats: The Blu-ray
The Dead Don’t Die walks the Earth on Blu-ray thanks to Universal Studios and Focus Features. Housed in a standard keepcase with a digital copy insert the film is pressed onto a Region Free BD-50 disc. The disc loads to a Universal logo followed by skippable trailers before landing on the static Main Menu screen with typical navigation options.
The Dead Don’t Die rises from the grave with a solid transfer. Presented in 1.78:1 in 1080p the image boasts excellent fine detail and color depth. Primaries are warm and earth tones slightly muted allowing Farmer Miller’s red hat to pierce the otherwise brown/gray color palette Centerville offers. Note the textures in facial features like wrinkles on ol’ Bill Murray’s face and the afternoon stubble on Adam Driver. Nighttime scenes offer plenty of detail in shadow and low light. Well-lit interiors offer plenty of detail without noise allowing you to see the remarkable production design revealing various horror references.
Digital visual effects on The Dead Don’t Die are acceptable for most scenes. Zombie deaths are met with an ashy mist that reminds me of Avengers: Infinity War but it isn’t distracting enough to worry about. Blood spray, etc. is also digital at times, which is expected these days I suppose. Fortunately, practical zombie prosthetics and effects work is damn impressive for a film of this calibre. Scenes with rubbery flesh tearing and organs spilling out look amazing. With plenty of fine detail in the image you can really appreciate the work put into the film.
The solo audio track on The Dead Don’t Die is an impressive DTS-HD MA 5.1 lossless mix. This is a nicely balanced track with clear and clean dialogue presented without hiss or distortion. Surround channels benefit with a constant stream of ominous music once the proceedings get rolling. Atmospherics are constantly pumping through the surrounds given the film’s small-town country setting. Low-frequency channels on the subwoofer resonate nicely during action scenes. Effects and music are mixed well within the texture keeping the sound field balanced within the front stage channels. It's a dialogue-heavy film so keep the volume at medium because everyone speaks so calmly and softly except when Mindy is screaming.
As expected, special features are a little light on this disc. The behind-the-scenes featurette is worth checking out if you want to dive a bit deeper into the zombie choreography of the film.
In yet another genre exercise, Jim Jarmusch makes a nod to classic zombie movies while calling out the ills of society and politics. Casting his usual group of actors and relying on long shots and dashes of insanity blended with Middle American values, The Dead Don’t Die goes down painfully but ends up oddly satisfying.
Universal’s Blu-ray release provides an strong A/V presentation but only minimal special features to round out the package. This film might be lost on hardcore zombie fans but for Jarmusch diehards The Dead Don’t Die comes Recommended.