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'The Dead Don't Die': Having Fun With the Oxymoron
By Michael S. Goldberger, iBerkshires Film Critic
05:36PM / Thursday, June 27, 2019
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I'd be impressed if I learned that a history prof in some U.S. university was showing his class director Jim Jarmusch's zombie/horror/comedy "The Dead Don't Die" as an instructive metaphor for the zombies down in Foggy Bottom. It might be a stretch, but then again, c'mon.
 
Possessed of no morality and dedicated only to their perverse survival, the sudden infestation of the undead in previously peaceful, Centerville, Pennsylvania, is fraught with tidbits of parodic wit, the satire there for all who are willing to recognize the real horror that threatens us.
 
In his latest example of off-the-hook, avant-garde filmmaking, wherein he pays tongue-in-cheek homage to the American horror genre on the way to his sociopolitical ruminations, auteur Jarmusch doesn't whistle past the graveyard, but screams by it in a blaring sound truck.
 
The brazenly oddball mechanisms he employs to build the scenario and make his points draw us into the nuttiness of his premise with the magnetic appeal of that naughtily mischievous kid who lived on your block.
 
It is the Theatre of the Absurd given a down home, American accent, played out by a handful of familiar stereotypes. Screwy as the often dastardly doings get, there is an intelligent appeal here that has us anxious to learn if the storied director has some magical solutions up his sleeve. Will he unleash them in the closing moments and thus save the Republic — the spirit of Émile Zola recalled to life in the unlikely personage of an independent filmmaker?
 
But be warned: Whether glibly hedging his artistic bets or just having a bit of sport with us, Jarmusch supplies an ominously built-in meme. It comes in the form of a curiously foreboding declaration that Adam Driver's Officer Ronnie Peterson oft repeats while investigating and then battling the zombie onslaught alongside his boss, Chief Cliff Robertson, played with deadpan glee by Bill Murray. 
 
Rounding out the sheriff's staff and just as flummoxed as we are by Ronnie's premonition is Chloë Sevigny's Deputy Officer Mindy Morrison, who, unlike her senior colleagues, didn't get the memo, assuming there was one.
 
Huh? Nutty? Yeah, but it's OK, this inherent confusion and purposely confounding inconsistency. Courtesy of his directorial stylings, a combination of seemingly lunatical hypotheses and plain old-fashioned evisceration, dread and a general panoply of the grotesquely unthinkable, Jarmusch earns dispensation from making obvious sense. The artistic conceit is that it's really in the hidden obscurities of the creative idea where truth can truly flourish. What the non-stop, conveyor belt beheadings of the story's undead signify, other than that evil is continually replaced by a new evil, remains an enigma for the viewer to mull.
 
Point of disclosure: The horror genre, save for the classic Draculas and Frankensteins of the 1930s, is by far my least favorite film phylum. Still, whether it's because I'm a fop looking for intellectual inclusion in a profound bit of cutting-edge, philosophical gallivanting -- regardless of whether this film is that or simply the Emperor's newest set of clothes -- I enjoyed being wafted about in the refreshingly creative freedom of Jarmusch's riffs. In this liberal, seemingly unhinged form of movie composition there is the sort of carefree soulfulness some may find filmically analogous to the scat fashionings of singers like Ella Fitzgerald and Mel Tormé.
 
Of course, a major part of the allurement is provided by Messrs. Murray and Driver, without whose inside joke-lilted performances the ghoulish hijinks doubtlessly couldn't have been pulled off. We know Murray's stoical police chief. He's Andy Griffith's Sheriff Taylor with a dollop of Atticus Finch who, long ago, decided that crazy as people are, the best thing to be is a fair-minded umpire. Driver's deputy, however, as alluded to afore, is not an easy read and, we
suspect, has a leg up on the insanity. I mean, why does he keep repeating, "This is definitely going to end badly?"
 
Fulfilling the boastful assertion of its tagline, "The Greatest Zombie Cast Ever Disassembled," the supporting ensemble's standout is Tilda Swinton's quirkily mysterious undertaker. Other welcome, albeit distorted, faces include Steve Buscemi, Danny Glover and, pulling double duty, Tom Waits. He is both Bob the Hermit and the narrator, his perceptive pontifications articulated in the manner gravelly intoned by Sam Elliott's The Stranger in "The Big Lebowski" (1998).
 
While I'd adhere strictly to the fully earned R rating in deciding to preclude little Brittany and Max's attendance, it's this wily disassociation from what the grisly repugnance represents that, in the logic of a geometry proof, implies a rather pixieish optimism. While there is indeed a repugnant quotient of blood, guts and gristle, it is more in the service of farce than fright. Which, to my benefit, makes "The Dead Don't Die" the perfect horror movie for scaredy-cats.
 
"The Dead Don't Die," rated R, is a Focus Features release directed by Jim Jarmusch and stars Bill Murray, Adam Driver and Chloë Sevigny. Running time: 104 minutes
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