Thursday, 11 July 2019

The Dead Don't Die

As a long time connoisseur of the zombie genre, I was pleased to discover a few months ago that we were supposed to be getting an ensemble, all star cast for a new zombie comedy The Dead Don't Die. Looking like a big homage to the tropes and fun of the best the zombie genre had to offer, its' trailer played well and had me hooked from the first time I saw it. Starring, Bill Murray, Adam Driver, Chloe Sevigny, Steve Buscemi, Tilda Swinton, Danny Glover and Selena Gomez, to name only a few! The cast is actually quite large and very likable, with what I thought were for sure going to be some stellar performances!

Did we get that? Well, we got something...

Set in the town of Centerville (A Nice Place) it follows the work of Sheriff Cliff Robertson (Murray), Ronnie (Driver) and Minerva "Mindy" (Sevigny) and others from the small town as they deal with some inexplicable changes caused by polar fracking. The day is longer, the moon emits a strange 'toxic' glow, and strange things are happening in the cemetery.

Robertson is first going after local Hermit Bob (Tom Waites) who Farmer Miller (Buscemi) has accused of stealing his chickens. We then have the the two policemen driving away and leaning very abruptly on the fourth wall when Ronnie comments that the song The Dead Don't Die, by Sturgill Simpson, is the theme song for the film after Robertson comments that it sounds very familiar. Get used to this song, this joke is gonna be overused a lot. There is a pretty cleverly done establishing shot done as the police cruiser goes by all the various locations we will be seeing as the film goes on.

We meet more of the town's denizens at a local diner, Hank (Glover), Farmer Miller, and a scene with some juvenile delinquents locked up in the county juvy center, Geronimo (Jahi Winston), Olivia (Taliyah Whitaker), and Stella (Maya Delmont). There's also local gas store/paraphernalia shop owner Bobby Wiggins (Caleb Landry Jones), motel owner Danny Perkins (Larry Fessenden) and travelling at the head of some 'city hipsters' is Selena Gomez as Zoe. Finally we have Tilda Swinton as the new local mortician, Zelda Winston.

The zombie weirdness begins one night as two 'coffee zombies' attack the diner and devour locals Fern and Lilly in a genuinely unsettling scene. It has some dark humor to it as the zombies recognize coffee and quit their mauling to ineptly swig some back before shuffling on. Now, these two zombies are played by Iggy Pop and Sara Driver, so you'd expect them to show up again. Other than a single scene where they are walking around with the coffee pots... they're kind of irrelevant.

Following this is an amusing sequence where we once again see some well done humor as a three part take with each police officer viewing the scene goes on. Then we finally get some delightful weirdness from Swinton's character Zelda as she wanders around in odd ways, speaks strangely (addressing people by their full names) and has jerky, almost planned moves when she isn't wielding her katana.

Next the zombies begin to follow in waves, and as the undead begin to slowly overwhelm the town. Madness ensues.

Something I should pause to praise is the zombies themselves. While they are the usual undead shamblers, the actors and extras who play them just dig into the roles and damn they do it well! And rather than big bloody sprays of gore, when the zombies are killed they instead shoot out these black dust clouds. It's a unique and very visually appealing touch that I think should be applauded.

From here we get intervening bits of well executed horror, some good bits of comedy, and a lot of flat jokes. Some of it is well executed, especially in the second act as I found myself laughing uproariously at Driver and Murray's banter with Sevigny, then Swinton just stole every scene she was in. But the first hour of the film tends to drag, with only a few well done jokes. Then the finale comes across as, well, confusing.

Now, past this cut there be spoilers, you have been warned. Sadly, it is almost impossible to do a good critique of the film without them.

As the film continues, the fourth wall leaning by Driver becomes almost obnoxious as he's referencing all that he knows about zombies, and how 'this is gonna end badly' which, while his pessimism in saying that should normally be funny when it causes others to freak out, feels half assed here for some reason. It gets one laugh, but by and large I found that it set up for a disappointing finale, as it was played too straight. Then, at the end of the film, Bill Murray is suddenly helping him break the fourth wall! This just drained what had been a scary and otherwise kick ass scene, into a somewhat unfulfilling one as you know what's going to happen. I couldn't decide whether this was supposed to be a stylistic choice, or whether it was something that was supposed to be a joke which spectacularly flopped.

Similarly, lots of potential talent is wasted. Selena Gomez's character is killed off screen! Though it does lead to a funny scene where Adam Driver is standing holding her severed head while Bill Murray talks about them being dead hipsters. It's dark, but very funny.

I'm not sure why I'm here either

Sevigny's character turned from being fun and funny to, well, useless. She keeps getting more and more scared, which works, but in the end she completely collapses and is overwhelmed as she basically jumps to her death by walking into the zombie horde. There's hints of a relationship between her and Driver's character, but we never see that. Hell, when she jumps out of the car he immediately locks the doors behind her! It was something I found sigh worthy as her only role seemed to be 'hysterical woman' which felt very dated.

Speaking of dropped plot lines, remember the three kids in the juvenile detention center? Yeah, they just kind of exist in this film. They don't have any really plot relevant lines or really any interaction with the main cast, unlike literally every other character. In fact, the film skimps so much on them that they just disappear during the third act. Frankly, their inclusion in the film is baffling since I couldn't for the life of me tell you what their purpose was.

We also have some really useless scenes. Hermit Bob, for instance, spends a lot of the movie walking around observing things and making comments about them. He does this frequently, and never really intercedes one way or another. I really thought we were setting up a scene for him to be eaten/zombified by the coffee zombies and then turn around and eat people since everyone was calling him harmless, but instead he just wanders around occasionally cracking wise. It just comes across as weird. At the end he has a big monologue about the cultural meaning of zombies, and why they were already dead because they love stuff. Was this supposed to be a witty commentary on the zombie genre? Was it meant to be a big non-sequitur to end the film? I don't know and we never really establish what the hell his purpose was.

Tilda Swinton though, is just gold in this whole movie. She has the majority of funny scenes, and by God she milks it for all that it's worth. From her strange gait, to her purposefully awkward delivery, and her genuinely amusing interactions with the undead, she's superb! Every scene she's in is well directed and genuinely funny. She is one of the highlights. But even she has a strange ending as she walks into the cemetery like a badass in what feels like a set up for a great finale, but then, she gets picked up by a UFO out of nowhere! That joke was sort of set up by her strange way of talking, her awkward social interactions and genuinely odd post mortem make up jobs. But it still feels like it flies out of left field, since we had no discussion of aliens to lead into it. I genuinely don't understand why this is in the movie.

Many other jokes fall flat, either through bad comedic timing, or repetition. The theme song is leaned on far more than necessary and at times the jokes really don't match the vibes the film is giving us. Some of the jokes are delivered so badly that the characters don't even seem invested in them!

Unlike other zombie comedies, Shaun of the Dead or Zombieland, none of the material here really spoofs or comments on the horror genre, zombies, or what makes them interesting. There's no hidden commentary on why we like zombies or what makes horror something we can mock. I don't even find myself wanting to rewatch it, as I feel like there aren't any hidden jokes or set ups I've missed like those above films. I might watch it once more to determine if I'm being unfair, but at the end of the day, I don't think I am.

What we have here is a confusing mess of a movie which almost feels like a bunch of ideas were tossed into a blender and served up to us as an experiment. The comedy runs the gambit from hilarious to dead on arrival. The effects and make up are interesting, and in any other movie would make it stand out. Coupled with its jerky plot, erratic acting, and unclear message, this is simply a good visual feature in an unfortunately forgettable movie. Something that appeared like it had a lot of promise as a big name zombie film, instead comes around as a half rotten shambler that seems to have been devised as a Frankenstien's monster of tones and themes.

It sadly deserves it's current Rotten Tomatoes rating of just over 50%.

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