Movie Review ~ The Dead Don’t Die

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The Facts
:

Synopsis: The peaceful town of Centerville finds itself battling a zombie horde as the dead start rising from their graves.

Stars: Bill Murray, Adam Driver, Chloë Sevigny, Selena Gomez, Iggy Pop, Caleb Landry Jones, Carol Kane, Danny Glover, RZA, Austin Butler, Rosie Perez, Tilda Swinton, Steve Buscemi, Tom Waits

Director: Jim Jarmusch

Rated: R

Running Length: 105 minutes

TMMM Score: (4/10)

Review: It isn’t often a movie about a zombie apocalypse gets a premiere at the fancy Cannes Film Festival but if you are director Jim Jarmusch you’ve earned a certain amount of street cred.  The famously indie auteur has been operating since 1980 and has delivered numerous cult faves, many of them originally received as complicated misfires.  Given it’s subject matter, starry cast, and B-movie aura, I’d imagine The Dead Don’t Die will join those cult classic ranks but you won’t find me lining up to see a midnight screening of this one anytime soon.  I had trouble enough staying awake during a daytime viewing.

Look, I’m about zombie-d out by this point and I don’t care who knows it.  I don’t watch The Walking Dead, I avoid all of the straight-to-streaming zombie flicks, I’ve long since sold-off any zombie video games I owned, and I keep my distance from television shows with a zombie premise.  I just think we’re moving on to different things by this point and the whole metaphor linking zombies to mass consumerism is entirely passé.  All I need to do is watch George Romero’s 1978 classic Dawn of the Dead and my craving for brainy material is satiated. (Heck, even Warm Bodies, the zombified Romeo & Juliet will do just fine if you don’t like the hard horror stuff.)  It’s so strange to me that Jarmusch, who has been on a critical uptick the past few years starting with the fascinating vampire tale Only Lovers Left Alive in 2013, would find himself wanting to draw inspiration from this well.

Not much happens in the sleepy town of Centerville, OH.  As the film opens, Chief Cliff Robertson (Bill Murray, Aloha) and Officer Ronnie Peterson (Adam Driver, Midnight Special) are traveling out to find Hermit Bob (Tom Waits, The Old Man & the Gun), thinking that he stole a chicken from Farmer Miller (Steve Buscemi, Hotel Transylvania 2).  That’s the extent of the excitement going on until the Earth starts to experience a strange phenomenon caused by polar fracking and a shifting on its axis.  It’s this event that causes the town to lose almost all connection with the outside world and for the bodies in the cemetery to start inexplicably rising from their graves and feasting on the unsuspecting townspeople.

The next several days are captured in small vignettes of varying degrees of success from the large ensemble Jarmusch has assembled.  What Jarmusch does exceedingly well is attract top talent to his film and this is another example of an over-abundance of familiar faces popping up when you least expect it.  In addition to our two lead cops, there’s Chloë Sevigny (The Snowman) as another weary officer not used to so much action in town, Caleb Landry Jones (The Florida Project) and Danny Glover (Monster Trucks) playing store owners who barricade themselves inside a hardware shop to fend off the walking dead, and Rosie Perez (Won’t Back Down) playing an informative newscaster named, wait for it, Posie Suraez.  Though many of the cast have worked with Jarmusch before, the only one that really feels like they know what movie they are in is Tilda Swinton (Suspiria) as the town’s new mortician who takes a methodical slice and dice approach in handling the undead.  Some cast members come off as lackadaisical in their approach, which is very Jarmusch in style, but Swinton knows how to pitch that aloofness into something that makes you curious to know more.

Though it gives way to full blown horror in its final stretch, much of the film is paced and pitched at a low boil. There’s so much effort put into the set-up and an absurd amount of characters repeating back the same information on what’s going on to newcomers. Always one to look a little askew at midwestern America, it’s no surprise Jarmusch has cast the townspeople as a bunch of oddballs who get even stranger when death comes knockin’. For pure comedic effect, Jarmusch’s zombies rise up not just with a craving for human flesh but harboring the same obsessions they had when they were alive.  One zombie cries out for chardonnay, another asks Siri a question and these moments of levity are fun at first but begin to become as repetitive as some of the dialogue.  In a bit of supposed extra fun, Jarmusch has Driver and Murray break the fourth wall several times, often commenting as themselves…which might be interesting if they didn’t come off as just riffing off each other between takes.  I’m all for going meta if you can see it through but this continually fell flat.

What was so great about Jarmusch’s take on vampires in Only Lovers Left Alive is that he found an interesting angle into the story which allowed him to craft memorable characters within that framework. In The Dead Don’t Die, there’s no real easy way into a genre that’s been explored to the fullest if you don’t have anything new to add to the conversation.  Even when the tone switches to all-out horror there’s little tension created, and the production isn’t helped by hokey special effects and make-up meant to be impressive that’s hard to see in the dark.  What’s left is a pack of good actors stumbling around for 105 minutes with little to show for their effort.  The film may boast the “the greatest zombie cast ever disassembled” but it just doesn’t come together in the end.

Down From the Shelf ~ Jumpin’ Jack Flash

The Facts:

Synopsis: A bank employee gets a coded message from an unknown source and becomes embroiled in an espionage ring.

Stars: Whoopi Goldberg, Stephen Collins, John Wood, Carol Kane, Annie Potts, Roscoe Lee Browne. Phil Hartman, Jon Lovitz, Michael McKean, Tracey Ullman

Director: Penny Marshall

Rated: R

Running Length: 106 minutes

TMMM Score: (6/10)

Review: Here’s an example of a movie I always remember being better than it is. Over the years I’ve returned often to this strange mix of comedy and intrigue with fond memories of fun only to wind up 106 minutes later wondering why I thought it was so great.  Don’t get me wrong, as a showcase for rising star Whoopi Goldberg, Jumpin’ Jack Flash is aces but considering the actress was coming off her Oscar-nominated breakthrough performance in The Color Purple and was several years away from winning her Oscar for Ghost one can’t help but see this as a minor blip on her way to the A-list.

You aren’t wrong in thinking the role of a lonely bank employee that gets roped into a real-life spy adventure is a strange fit for Goldberg.  Just like Sister Act was conceived as a vehicle for Bette Midler, Jumpin’ Jack Flash was intended for Shelley Long who opted for The Money Pit and Outrageous Fortune instead.  Aside from a few instances that were surely the result of Goldberg’s improvisation, the dialogue and overall plot seems generally unchanged from when it was Long’s…and that’s problematic.  With no discernible personality, Goldberg’s character (and the actress herself) struggles at the confines of a screenplay that often works against her more than it does her any real favors.

After original director Howard Zeiff was fired after a few weeks of filming, actress and first-time director Penny Marshall was brought in and that also doesn’t exactly help things.  While Marshall would go on to have several notable efforts like Big, A League of Their Own, and Awakenings, the rookie mistakes are evident.  Though it has comedy in fits and starts, the tone of the movie is all over the place.  One moment it’s an office comedy, then it’s an international thriller before getting Keystone Kop-y after Goldberg finds herself locked in a telephone booth tethered to the back of a tow truck.

With all these items in the minus column of my critical spreadsheet, why do I keep returning to this one?  Clearly, it’s Goldberg and it’s thanks to her the movie remains a rainy day option.  Managing to sell most of the malarkey dialogue she’s tasked with, Goldberg’s NYC vibe creeps in at opportune times.  I still get a kick out of her conning her way into a royal gala at the British embassy dressed as Diana Ross and lip-synching to one of the singer’s tunes.  While the telephone booth scene is quite screwball, listening to Goldberg riff on her situation provides some nice chuckles.  Let’s also give a hand for a fine supporting cast of familiar faces and a great big roll of the eyes at the ancient computer technology that at one time was cutting edge.

A hit at the box office, even if Jumpin’ Jack Flash is an interesting step in Goldberg’s ladder to stardom and hasn’t aged well at all it’s still better than Burglar, Fatal Beauty, and the string of other head-scratchers she appeared in the years after The Color Purple was released.