'Dead Don't Die' Review: Self-Aware Dry Humor Makes These Zombies Too Meta

This meta zombie commentary comes 10 years too late.

The Dead Don’t Die director Jim Jarmusch knows the deepest truth of the zombie film genre, and just in case you don’t comprehend the allegory about how brainless consumerism will one day kill us all, he spells it out in a deadpan, mostly inert film with an all-star cast that often goes to waste. It’s smart and amusing, but The Dead Don’t Die isn’t always fun to watch. Not even Bill Murray can save the movie from its own inertia, but isn’t the point of this horror sub-genre that the undead are an unbeatable force of nature punishing humanity for its own negligence?

Bill Murray and Adam Driver co-star in The Dead Don’t Die as the police chief and deputy of Centerfield, a tiny rural town in middle-of-nowhere Pennsylvania meant to parody the rural setting of stories like Twin Peaks, Cabin in the Woods, and other horror classics. There’s a single motel, one diner, a juvenile detention center, and nothing going on whatsoever. When polar fracking knocks the planet off its axis, disrupting the very rotation of the Earth, elongated daytime hours become the least of everyone’s concerns as the dead rise from their graves thanks to some confusing pseudoscience.

Adam Driver, Chloë Sevigny, and Bill Murray as officers of the law in 'The Dead Don't Die'.

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We hear the government deny the connection between global disaster and polar fracking. Between Steve Buscemi’s bright-red “Make America White Again” hat and government reports that polar fracking creates “lots of jobs … so many jobs,” The Dead Don’t Die is elevated to a confused critique of President Donald Trump’s pathetic approach to climate change.

That cautionary tale about the dangers of global warming gets wrapped up in a messy critique of brainless consumerism as the zombies gravitate towards things they loved in life. Undead former drug addicts shamble around in front of a pharmacy, murmuring for Ambien or Xanax. One woman mumbles for Chardonnay (same.) The lesson is clear: We obsess over things compulsively without living mindfully.

The Dead Don’t Die executes these messages in the most unsubtle ways imaginable: by throwing all three of Edgar Wright’s Cornetto films into a blender with a handful of guts and hitting the frappe button. Oh shoot, you forgot to put the lid on. Oh God, there’s guts everywhere. Oh jeez, what a mess. At least Bill Murray and Adam Driver are here to try and fail to save the day. The humor is also there, but it’s so dry that even the zombie’s heads are full of black dust instead of guts.

To go all the way into how Dead Don’t Die pays homage to Shaun of the Dead, Hot Fuzz, and The World’s End would ultimately spoil too much of the absurdity that is this movie. Many of us adore Shaun of the Dead for being brazen enough in 2005 to have a character say “the zed word” (zombie!). It’s a clever nod to how people in zombie movies are dumb and never call them zombies or know how to deal with them; They wind up dying with their ignorance.

Despite how ridiculous Dead Don’t Die gets, the most realistic narrative choices it makes involve how the ensemble reacts as zombies emerge. The police, the hardware store owner, and the nerdy gas station attendant all stock up with zombie-killing supplies immediately. 

Luka Sabbat, Selena Gomez, and Austin Butler play three "Cleveland hipsters" riding through town just as the apocalypse begins.

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Even the children at the local juvenile detention center have the sense to see what’s going on. When a trio of “hipster” kids passing through town see the news on TV from their hotel room, they’re creeped out and lock their door. These responses feel far more realistic than we usually get in zombie flicks.

There’s no doubt that a decade earlier, Dead Don’t Die could’ve been revered as a post-modern meta-parody of the zombie horror genre. It reminds me of George A. Romero’s Diary of the Dead (2007), another ridiculous, dry, and meta zombie movie framed as found footage. Both are the perfect late-night repeat to watch among friends so you can laugh at the absurdity. Stoners in particular will find a lot to love here.

But Dead Don’t Die’s deadpan performances and overall lack of energy never let up as it leans too heavily on the dry humor and not hard enough on the comedic chops of its lead actors. Rest assured, Bill Murray and Adam Driver are both hilarious and the wider cast is full of talent. We just don’t see enough of it.

You can see the glee twinkling deep in Murray and Driver’s eyes as they try to outdo one another with their dry wit, a sparring match of two actors having a good time. Their joy only grows when they go full-on meta, both breaking character to talk about reading the script as the movie fully unravels. The wider story feels self-aware, but here it dives deeper.

Dead Don’t Die is more meta but less intelligent than Cabin in the Woods, which pretended to be a generic satire of a much-too-common trope but spiraled into brilliant commentary on the entire horror genre. Dead Don’t Die critiques the blandness of the zombie genre while deconstructing it in equal stride, but even when it goes meta, it’s not nearly as enjoyable to watch.

The film’s at its most meta and realistic right after the first zombie attack. Three people in a row survey a grisly diner scene and wonder aloud if it was “some kind of wild animal,” nay, “a pack of wild animals.”

“I’m thinking zombies,” Adam Driver just blurts out.

"I'm thinking zombies," Officer Peterson says.

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Shaun of the Dead already did this joke, with its characters immediately recognizing the zombie threat like any of us would in their shoes. The legacy of horror is yelling at dumb people on the other side of the screen and wondering why they aren’t as smart as you.

As soon as the dangers begin to arise, Driver’s character begins a mantra of, “This is not going to end well!” If it sounds like an echo of Han Solo’s “I’ve got a bad feeling about this!” then don’t worry, there’s a funny Star Wars reference clipped to Officer Peterson’s car keys.

Unforgiving in its absurdity, The Dead Don’t Die won’t be a huge draw to theaters, but several years from now it might just gain a following as a cult classic — at least among zombie fans who are tired of rewatching Shaun of the Dead.

Dead Don’t Die lurches into theaters everywhere on June 14, 2019.

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