The town of Centerville, Ohio has a living population of 738, but its total population is about to get a lot bigger. The TV news stations have been reporting that due to Polar fracking, the Earth has shifted off its axis, causing some unusual occurrences. Daylight is lasting longer, and the moon is experiencing lunar radiation, which is causing the dead to reanimate (though this last part was not in the news report). The zombie takeover of Centerville starts off slowly, with just two newly arisen zombies making their way to the local diner, where they attack and kill two diner employees. The next morning, the diner’s regulars arrive to the grizzly sight and call Chief Cliff Robertson (Bill Murray) to investigate. He arrives at the scene along with the other two members of Centerville PD, Officer Ronnie Peterson (Adam Driver) and Officer Mindy Morrison (Chloë Sevigny), who initially believe the deaths are due to a wild animal attack…or multiple wild animals. However Ronnie eventually makes the logical but seemingly out there announcement that they are dealing with zombies. So the cops go out on patrol to try to warn and help the Centerville residents…but according to Ronnie, things aren’t going to end well.
The town has many unusual residents including the odd new coroner, the Scottish-accented, samurai sword-wielding Zelda Winston (Tilda Swinton), lonely Motel owner Danny Perkins (Larry Fessenden), conservative farmer Frank Miller (Steve Buscemi), hardware store owner Hank Thompson (Danny Glover), and gas station owner/comic book nerd Bobby Wiggins (Caleb Landry Jones). There’s also a trio of teens locked in a local detention center (Maya Delmont, Taliyah Whitaker, Jahi Winston), and a trio of “hipsters” from Cleveland (Selena Gomez, Austin Butler, Luka Sabbat) who were driving through the town and decided to spend the night at the motel. Soon, all of these folks will be fighting for their lives against an angry mob of the undead.
After seeing the trailer, I was so excited to see this film. Just look at that amazing cast, not to mention many other guest appearances/cameos, such as Rosie Perez as news reporter Posie Juarez, Wu Tang’s RZA as WU-PS driver Dean, and Iggy Pop as a coffee addicted zombie, among others. However, Ronnie’s constant line of “This isn’t going to end well” rings so true, but unfortunately it doesn’t just apply to the movie’s disappointing ending.
Despite the film’s excellent cast and promising premise, very poor execution causes it to be a huge let down. The film had such great potential to be a fun zombie movie parody, and there were some aspects that I really enjoyed. I liked that the characters have seen zombie movies and understand what they are dealing with, and know what they must do to stop the creatures. It was really fun at times to see these regular folks using whatever they could find to try to fight off the hoard of the unread. However, this self-aware nature goes a bit too far at times as the film breaks the fourth wall with Ronnie mentioning that he’s read the script, or when the song “The Dead Don’t Die” comes on the radio and the chief asks “Why does this song sound familiar?”, to which Ronnie responds, “Well, because it’s the theme song.” I get that this was going for humor, but sometimes it felt like the film was trying to be too clever, weird and offbeat just for the sake of being weird and offbeat.
One new zombie aspect introduced in the film that I enjoyed was the way the film plays with the traditional “brains” mantra of the zombies. The zombies in this film gravitate towards the things they did when they were alive, and use a word related to that. So the diner zombies are moaning “Coffee” as they attack the workers, the zombies going after the motel owner are moaning “Free Cable”, and when drunk tank Mallory (Carol Kane) becomes reanimated, she’s moaning “Chardonnay”. We also see several zombies wandering around with their cellphones raised moaning for “WiFi”, “Siri”, or “Bluetooth”.
The film does have a lot of attempts at humor, but not all of it works. Some things are sight gags, like the tall Officer Ronnie showing up to the crime scene in his tiny Smart Car, or pretty much anything Zelda does. While other jokes often follow the comedy formula of three, where the same line/joke is repeated in succession by three different characters. However, some of these running jokes get repeated to death, like Ronnie’s “this isn’t going to end well”, or the constant use of the theme song (which I admit is quite catchy).
Probably the biggest issue I had with the film is the way things move at a snail’s pace. Lines are delivered in a deliberately slow, deadpan manner. After the diner incident early on, it takes until almost an hour into the movie before things really start to happen and the dead start to rise and attack these main characters we’ve grown to know and like. And at that point, unlike your typical zombie film, none of these characters feel particularly safe as everyone is a big name actor. That said, one character I would have been happy to lose completely is the useless Hermit Bob (Tom Waits), who constantly pops up throughout the film, watching the other characters from deep in the woods with his binoculars, making social commentary on what’s happening. And speaking of social commentary, the story seems to have this needless, thinly veiled political undertone that humanity is hopeless and doomed. There are the constant news reports blaming fracking for causing the trouble that the characters are going through, and alternative news reports arguing that this is junk science and fake news. (I see enough of this on TV every day, I don’t need it in my entertainment as well!) Also, Farmer Frank is wearing a red “Make America White Again” hat, and makes a comment at the diner about his coffee being too black, as Hank sits on the stool next to him.
I really wanted to love this movie, and it seemed to have everything going for it, but it ultimately ended up falling flat. That said, while I don’t think this film is for everyone, those who do enjoy it will probably love it. I could certainly see this film having a cult-like fan following, the same way that some folks detest Wes Anderson films while others love them. I have not seen any of writer/director Jim Jarmusch’s other films, so I’m not sure if this film’s tone and style is typical of his work.
That said, Universal’s Blu-ray release looks really good, providing a clean, detailed picture that looks great both in the early brighter scenes and also later on during the nighttime zombie attack. I only noticed one scene early on when the camera is panning through the woods looking for Hermit Bob where things got a little blurry. The audio track never seemed to utilize the surround channel all that much. It wasn’t a bad sounding movie, just nothing notable. Most of the dialogue was focused on the center channel. However, when Sturgill Simpsons’s title song is playing (which is often), it sounds great.
The Blu-ray release comes packed in standard HD keepcase with a slipcover, and contains an insert with a code to redeem for an HD Movies Anywhere digital copy of the film. The bonus material is a bit disappointing, with just 4 minutes of interviews with the cast/producers and 5 minutes of tedious raw behind-the-scenes clips of the zombie extras.
- 1080p / Widescreen 1.78:1
- Audio: English 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio, English DVS (Descriptive Video Service), Spanish 5.1 DTS Digital Surround, French 5.1 DTS Digital Surround
- Subtitles: English SDH, Spanish, French
- HD Movies Anywhere compatible digital copy
Digital (for redemption deadline, see NBCUcodes.com):
- Bill Murray: Zombie Hunting Action Star (1:21)
Star Bill Murray (“Chief Cliff Robertson”) talks about working in zombie films, and jokes that that after Zombieland and now this he’s going to be typecast as a zombie movie action hero.
- Stick Together (2:47)
Jim Jarmusch’s frequent “family” of cast and crew talk about working with the director and his unique take on a zombie film. Participants include producers Carter Logan & Joshua Astrachan, and stars Bill Murray, Tilda Swinton (“Zelda Winston”), Chloë Sevigny (“Officer Mindy Morrison”) & Larry Fessenden (“Danny Perkins”).
- Behind-the-Scenes of The Dead Don’t Die (5:16)
Collection of short, raw behind the scenes footage from the set. Play All, or select from:
- Zombie Tai Chi (:55)
The zombies perform Tai Chi in the cemetery
- Growl Practice (:18)
The zombies practice their growls in the cemetery
- A Spin Around Set (:32)
The camera does a quick 360 degree spin around the set
- Craft Services (1:00)
The zombies make their approach towards a victim and pretend to eat him
- Undead Symphony (2:16)
A crew member conducts Zombie children to growl in unison like a symphony
- Finger Food (:22)
A zombie bites away at a stretchy piece of human flesh
- Zombie Tai Chi (:55)
The Dead Don’t Die certainly won’t be for everyone. While it has an amazing cast, and I’m a big fan of zombie movies, I found the film to be way too slow, and a lot of the humor didn’t work for me. The Blu-ray presentation is solid, but the bonus material is minimal and disappointing. I would suggest a rental first for fans of the cast, zombie comedies, or of Jarmusch’s previous work. I suspect this film will have some die-hard fans, but unfortunately I was not one of them.