Released: 24th October (General Release)
Seen: 17th June (Sydney Film Festival)
It’s been said before, I shall say it again, there is no element of pop culture that has been used more often than the Zombie. Maybe Jesus has been used more often, but not by much. Everything nowadays has a zombie element to it. One of the most popular TV series right now is a Zombie show, every 4th game released has a zombie mode in it, you can buy zombie-shaped slippers for crying out loud. Zombies are everywhere nowadays and they’ve been done in so many ways that a truly original take on them is almost impossible to find. The last real original Zombie movie I saw was one called Anna and the Apocalypse; I never got around to reviewing that film but it was a Christmas Zombie Musical Comedy set in England and it’s every bit as glorious as that combination sounds. I bring that film up because it’s a great example of what happens when you have several film ideas (a Christmas film, a zombie film and a high school musical comedy) and make them work together. The Dead Don’t Die however is what happens when you have several film ideas, smash them together violently, hold them together with Scotch tape and present it as a complete work. Weirdly, it kind of works… kind of.
The Dead Don’t Die is set in the sleepy little town of Centerville, a nice place to live, where a pair of police officers patrols the small town. Officer Cliff Robertson (Bill Murray) is old and clearly worn from a long career butt is beloved by his co-workers and clearly the town. Officer Ronald Peterson (Adam Driver) is constantly sure that the day’s going to end badly, speaks in ominous tones and is a little too prepared for when the zombies show up. They’re both working with the third police officer in the town, Officer Minerva Morrison (Chloe Sevigny) who is a little less OK with all the Zombie shenanigans going on. They go around the town, running into the random characters like the racist farmer, the kind African American shopkeeper, the nerdy gas station attendant and the hermit who lives in the woods. While all this is going on, fracking in the polar ice caps causes the earth to spin off its axis in a way that awakens the dead who have come to the little town of Centerville to kill everyone and maybe get a cup of coffee.
While I know that sounds like one cohesive storyline, I promise you the film doesn’t play it that way because we get about a half dozen different tonal shifts and at least one character who is just in another film altogether. We get comedic banter while zombie things are happening, we get a bunch of kids from out of town who look like they’re going to be the focus of the film (but they last about 5 minutes), then the zombies go from being actually scary to being lifted from Return of the Living Dead, oh and then we get random fourth wall breaking and finally we get Tilda Swinton running around as a Scottish samurai mortician who does computer hacking and walks like a badly coded character in a 90’s video game… it’s all over the place and the film never really seems to know what it wants to do. There are easily four or five different movies here that you could make out of the ideas presented and they’re just slammed in together, portions of them breaking off. Hell, I didn’t even mention the section about the kids in the Juvenile Detention Center because there’s no point; they’re basically forgotten at the end with no resolution and no impact on the plot.
Every character in the film was clearly meant to be in different movies, they certainly don’t feel like they belong in the same universe. Are we all deadpan or overly emotional? Are we going to behave like real people or are we going to have random moments of pure weirdness? I spent so much of the film just wanting to know what script each character was originally from because no one feels like they belong together. Sure, that creates some amusing moments when the Scottish Samurai Buddhist Mortician Tilda Swinton Character starts talking to the straight-laced cop Chloe Sevigny but they never feel like they naturally fit together. Then again, this is what happens when your casting decisions are made based off (I’m assuming) whose number does the director have in their phone and who was available for the shooting dates and then you write around that. That’s what it feels like; this film is bragging about having the most insane cast in a zombie movie and to its credit, it has that. It would help a lot if the movie could pick an idea instead of trying to do all of them but… baby steps.
The film really just can’t commit to an idea. There are several moments in the film when it hints at the characters being aware that they’re in the film, mentioning that a certain song is the “Theme Tune” or that they’re improvising and this could be an interesting idea that might lead to a great climax… it doesn’t, because they never do anything with it. They bring the idea up, wave it in your face and go “Isn’t this funny? Isn’t this cool?” before putting it carefully back down and never doing a damn thing with it beyond just pointing out it’s there. There’s a really big moment right near the end that could have turned the ending into something worth remembering, into something truly special but they drop it the second they bring it up. This cool idea (I’m trying hard not to spoil it, sorry) is brought up for a joke and discarded just as quickly as it was brought up. The entire third act is just a mess with plots either being discarded, characters acting abysmally stupid or several pure WTF moments that made me question if I’d just finally snapped and lost my mind.
So with all those complaints, I’m sure you’d think I probably hate this film and… no? I mean, it’s not great but I can’t deny the film is enjoyable. It’s a mess to follow and doesn’t make a lick of sense at any point but it’s also packed with some pretty good jokes and the cast is genuinely awesome. I would gleefully watch an hour of Zombie Iggy Pop trying to pour coffee, it’s that funny. Yes, Zombie Iggy Pop has a coffee obsession… go with it. I cackled when the Scottish Samurai Buddhist Mortician Hacker Tilda Swinton character was doing full drag makeup on corpses before removing their heads when they sat up. There are some wonderfully weird scenes in this film that do make it worth a watch, even though by the end you will be asking yourself “What the actual hell did I just see? Am I meant to understand anything that went on? And did I really see a Zombie Carol Kane ask for Chardonnay?”
The Dead Don’t Die is a mess. It’s half a dozen films that are fighting for dominance and none of them ended up winning. Hard to follow at times, the film is saved by the charm of its eccentric cast and its great dialogue. Long as you don’t expect things to make sense then you should be able to get something out of this, even if that something is just a desperate need to see more of the Scottish Samurai Buddhist Mortician Hacker Alien Tilda Swinton character.