Release Date(s)2019 (September 10, 2019)
Studio(s)Kill in the Head/Focus Features (Universal Pictures Home Entertainment)
- Film/Program Grade: B-
- Video Grade: B
- Audio Grade: B
- Extras Grade: D
How can filmmakers put a new wrinkle in the zombie sub-genre since George Romero gave us the modern concept of the creature in Night of the Living Dead – an undead cannibal ever on the prowl for the bodies of the living? In The Dead Don’t Die, director Jim Jarmusch presents an oddball spin on the genre with his deadpan tale of zombies on the loose in the small town of Centerville.
Sheriff Cliff Robertson (Bill Murray) and Deputy Ronnie Peterson (Adam Driver) investigate the theft of chickens from farmer Miller (Steve Buscemi), the local loudmouth. They suspect local woods-dwelling hermit Bob (Tom Waits), who takes a shot at them from the underbrush. The cops take this in stride and head back to town. Their reactions are oddly calm.
Not much happens in Centerville and this type of call is about as exciting as it gets, but all of that will change. It’s not getting dark when it should. A radio broadcast tells us this may be due to the earth shifting on its axis. Then all cellphones and watches in town go on the fritz.
After a pretty slow start, Robertson and Peterson discover the eviscerated bodies of two employees of the local diner. Everyone thinks a wild animal or several wild animals are responsible. But Peterson says, quite matter-of-factly, that he suspects zombies. Why? The crime scene resembles what he’s seen in zombie movies. He also volunteers the only way to kill a zombie: Destroy the head. Robertson takes this in with no comment but a brief sidelong glance.
Ultimately, the zombies do rise from their graves and shuffle through town, attacking and dining on the living. The make-up effects are excellent, and the zombies behave as they have in many films before.
Rather than a grisly horror film, Jarmusch has directed a dry, low-key comedy. Characters occasionally make reference to the very film in which they are appearing, breaking the fourth wall and giving the movie a surreal quality. At one point, when Robertson asks Peterson how he knows what will happen, the deputy says he read it in the script.
When the cops turn on the car radio after their police radio and cellphones fail to work, Robertson asks Peterson the name of the song being played. The deputy responds, “The Dead Don’t Die by Sturgill Simpson – the theme song of the movie.” Murray and Driver deliver similarly emotionless performances, never smiling once. The dialogue is slow and relaxed despite the fact that monsters are plaguing the small town.
This is not the usual structure of a horror film. Generally a horror film will set the scene and introduce the characters quickly so it can get to the “good stuff.” Jarmusch makes us wait for the zombies, perhaps too long. The slow, halting, emotionless dialogue style becomes repetitive and loses its effectiveness.
Chloe Sevigny plays a second deputy, Mindy Morrison, an eager young woman who seems to have a crush on the oblivious Peterson. Tilda Swinton as the local mortician, Zelda Winston, turns in yet another of her bizarre portrayals. Zelda has a knack not only for applying make-up to corpses but also for wielding a mean sword, a talent that comes in handy when zombies become ubiquitous.
The supporting cast is more lustrous than is typical in zombie films. Caleb Landry Jones runs a gas station/comic book shop, Danny Glover is the local hardware store owner, and Carol Kane is a resurrected alcoholic. Selena Gomez is one of three young people who stop at the local motel, and Rosie Perez is seen periodically as TV reporter Posie Suarez.
Once the zombies attack, graphic gore abounds. The effects are superb, with lots of decapitations, human innards, and blood. But it’s the wry style of The Dead Don’t Die that dominates. It’s a zombie film that skews expectations by tamping down emotions, treating the extraordinary as routine, and making lethal havoc in a small town look like a series of deadpan sketches.
With a resolution of 1080p High Definition, the Blu-ray is presented in the widescreen aspect ratio of 1.78:1. Early scenes establish the small town of Centerville and its outskirts. Under overcast skies, we see locations that will become important later on – the graveyard, a gas station/convenience store, the diner, and surrounding woods. Several scenes are shot within cars, specifically Sheriff Cliff and Deputy Ronnie on patrol and the teenagers en route to town. These are shot in real cars, not via process screen and studio mock-ups, providing authenticity. The zombie attacks occur primarily at night to heighten mood. They roam aimlessly until they focus their attention en masse on nearby human prey. There’s a bluish hue to these scenes, giving them an otherworldly quality. The effects work is outstanding, with most zombies decapitated and puffs of black smoke emanating from their torsos. In a weird sci-fi sequence, a flying saucer hovers over a large field as fascinated zombies stare up in awe. One of the established characters is beamed up as the saucer speeds away in the night sky.
The soundtrack is presented in English 5.1 DTS-High Definition Master Audio. It’s most effective whenever the zombies are shown. Sometimes, they are completely silent, other times they moan and make rumbling noises, and their utterances become louder and more aggressive when human food is in sight. Gunshots pierce the small-town quiet and the sound of the zombie hoard is increased at climactic moments. The use of silence is notable, since so many contemporary films are overly loud. The silence contributes to the escalating mood of terror. The dialogue is paced slower than usual with lengthy pauses between lines of dialogue – a stylistic choice that can lead to impatience when it slows dramatic momentum.
Bonus materials on this R-rated Blu-ray release include 3 brief featurettes that shed very little light on the production process. Twenty chapters are contained for easy access to specific scenes, and a Digital Copy code on a paper insert can be found within the case.
Bill Murray: Zombie Hunting Action Star – This little tongue-in-cheek clip features Murray reflecting, in deadpan fashion, on the tone of the film and his exploits vanquishing zombies in his role as town sheriff. According to Murray, “If you kill a zombie, you can kill without remorse.”
Stick Together – Producer Carter Logan refers to the film as “a refreshing take on the zombie genre.” The various zombies have individual characteristics. Cast members discuss both the way zombies are portrayed and the unique style of the film.
Behind the Scenes of The Dead Don’t Die – Six brief clips are shown that look more like home movies than professionally shot video. There is no narration and the clips appear to be raw video, right out of the camera with no editing. They include:
1. Zombie Tai Chi – Zombie extras, in costume, following a zombie exercise instructor.
2. Growl Practice – Zombie extras are coached in how to make zombie grunts, moans, and other guttural sounds.
3. A Spin Around Set – This 360-degree shot reveals a part of the graveyard, a prop police cruiser, and various technicians readying the set.
4. Craft Services – Zombies close in on a victim as they rehearse feasting on him. The “victim” is a crew member, crouched down.
5. Undead Symphony – The sound department records a group of zombie extras making gruesome, creepy noises as a boom microphone above them is moved to capture each actor’s unique voice.
6. Finger Food – One lone zombie extra chomps on a false piece of human flesh.
– Dennis Seuling