Review: ‘The Dead Don’t Die’ (kill the head)

A self-aware absurdist horror dramedy that ends badly.

Welcome to Centerville, a tiny anywhere kind of town where life slows to a crawl. After confronting Hermit Bob (Tom Waits) over yet another complaint from Farmer Miller (Steve Buscemi), Chief Cliff Robertson (Bill Murray) and Officer Ronnie Peterson (Adam Driver) contemplate life while considering their next coffee and donuts run. Meanwhile, the consequences of an ecological disaster upsets the delicate balance of nature upon Planet Earth. Not immune to forces outside of their control, and the peaceful townsfolk soon come face-to-face with the crossroads of science and religion: the dead are returning to life, and nothing will ever be the same!

An all-star cast, an eclectic writer/director, and more zombie tropes you can shake a machete at. So why do the ads and trailers for this creature feature look so anemic? Everyone standing around, repeating the same droll dialogue, barely reacting to internal or external stimuli, almost as if waiting to hit their marks and say their lines. While the images look crisp, high-def, and modern, the angles appear throwback yet still deliberate. Is this a film paying homage to classic horror films or merely making fun of them? Is it possible to (gulp) do both?

Like re-watching a train wreck on YouTube in slow motion, Only Lovers Left Alive writer/director Jim Jarmusch has created a conditional love letter to a genre, specifically to how wonderfully terrible it can be. Not only do his actors deliver bad dialogue brilliantly, they’re also semi-aware of their status of being in a film. From dropped plot threads and ridiculous science to one-note characters and government conspiracy, the film begs for an impromptu drinking game around any of the repeated elements — a manufactured cult classic destined to play in the background of horror conventions until the inevitable zombie apocalypse.

Working against the production is inherent pedigree: it looks too good and is too well cast for merely a riff on bad movies. Consider Larry Blamire’s 1950s sci-fi spoof The Lost Skeleton of Cadavra (and its later sequel The Lost Skeleton Returns Again), complete with cheesy creatures, mad scientists, and always-questionable decisions. Metaphysics on a shoestring in the finest Roger Corman tradition (there a book on that, by the way) typically champion writing over budget concerns, like the original “Dark Shadows” or even old “Doctor Who” episodes. The Dead Don’t Die, in contrast, appears to be a solid mid-budget film with nary a cardboard wall or in-frame boom mike anywhere to be found. It’s possible to get away with both — think Tim Burton’s Mars Attacks — but it can be confusing to viewers uncertain if they’re watching intentional or incidental spoof.

With AMC’s “The Walking Dead” winding down and The CW’s “iZombie” on its final season, the genre has certainly peaked. As counter-programming, however, this newest entry has George Romero on its mind and pop-culture snark in its heart. While playing out all warm and squishy for those getting the joke, a great many will fail to see it for the MST3K-ready feature that it is; your mileage may vary.

The Dead Don’t Die is rated R for zombie violence/gore, language, and a woozy new tune by Sturgill Simpson.

Three skull recommendation out of four

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