More often than not, it has been said, when someone sees good in something, he or she is probably right. Conversely, when one can only see what is bad, he or she is probably wrong.
As a film that overtly looks upon the world and its people as exasperating, misguided, and out of touch, The Dead Don’t Die would seem to offer a good example of how failing to find anything good in the world can result in some extremely exasperating, misguided, and out of touch art.
The story takes place in a small town whose quaintly symbolic name, Centerville, promises some allegorical comment upon what might be called the heart condition of the American heartland. Early references to the world-wrecking consequences of oil-fracking and red hat-wearing racists would seem to situate the commentary as primarily political and left leaning.
However, rather like the film as a whole, these early sparks of potentially inflammatory wit and insight never really catch fire.
Indeed, in the trademark style of director Jim Jarmusch, the deliberate artistic dampening of all characterly emotion obviously reaches for an atmosphere of deadpan irony. But the ostentatiously disengaged mannerisms that were arguably effective in his Only Lovers Left Alive and Paterson – producing a kind of exquisite ennui and poetic profundity, respectively – in this case end up creating an alleged comedy about the end of the world that is seldom entertaining and more often simply tedious.
Part of the problem here, perhaps, is that however much total impersonal detachment or all-absorbing introversion might be represented as intriguing, it very seldom succeeds at being funny. For something to be comedic, someone has got to care about something.
A pratfall is funny only when the individual would prefer to remain standing. When falling or standing or turning a somersault or getting hit by a bus are all equally preferable because none of them really makes any difference, the outcome is not humour but a muted kind of tragedy.
So, when a young police officer in this film comes across the gruesome remains of two zombie-attacked victims sprawled on the floor of a roadside diner and spontaneously yells, “Yuck!,” it is darkly funny. He, like we, would have preferred not to see that. But when his partner takes in the same spectacle and flatly adverts to the fact some coffee pots were also broken, the observation lands less with the ring of a joke than with the hollow thud like something is deeply missing.
It might be tempting, at this point, to paint the whole genre black: isn’t this what all zombie movies are like? Gore and obscenity and representing human persons as empty ciphers of people?
To a certain extent this is true (and this film contains enough of such characteristics to ward off the especially sensitive). However, the best zombie fictions also accomplish something more.
Zombieland and Warm Bodies, for instance, require relatively little down payments of enduring unpleasantness to shell out big dividends of heart. George Romero’s low-budget classic Dawn of the Dead (1978) and more polished Land of the Dead (2005) – while requiring quite a bit more endurance of unpleasantness, it must be said – also offer hefty doses of that social and political allegory The Dead Don’t Die contains in only trace amounts.
Zombies might be soulless, but the films about them do not have to be.
Regrettably, this may well be what this film is missing, a sense of the soul which is not only the spark of vital interest that is the substance of every comedy, but also, perhaps, ultimately both the beginning and the end of recognizing the good of every living thing.
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