“The Dead Don’t Die” (MA) ***
THIS film, written and directed by Jim Jarmusch is, as far as I’ve been able to ascertain, the 499th in the totally artificial cinematic genre called zombie, which first hit screens in 1932 with Bela Lugosi in Victor Halperin’s “White Zombie”.
Where did “zombie” originate? In an 1819 history of Brazil by poet Robert Southey, referring to an Afro-Brazilian rebel leader named Zumbi.
However their dramatic flavourings vary (and the list of those contains some wild flights of fancy) all zombie movies tend to look like each other. The dead rise from the grave, scare the daylights out of the living, suck human blood, eat human flesh and convert their victims into zombies just like themselves, before succumbing to, well, death from as many variations on that theme as there are opportunities for filmmakers’ imaginations to go berserk (American zombie movies tend to favour shooting, which is hardly surprising).
Jim Jarmusch is not your conventional potboiler movie maker. Idiosyncratic pretty well covers it within the available space on the page. He likes to cast chums in his relatively small number of films. This time, regular favourite Bill Murray plays Cliff, chief of the three-person police force in the little town of Centreville. Cliff could have retired a couple of years ago, but that would have led to boredom. His staff comprises Ronnie (Adam Driver) and Mindy (Chloë Sevigny). You might recognise Danny Glover and Steve Buscemi as townsfolk. You’d be hard put to recognise another Jarmusch regular, Tom Waits, behind a face full of whiskers.
And then there’s Tilda Swinton. As town mortician Zelda Winston underneath a cornsilk-coloured wig nearly reaching her waist, she amuses herself by practising with a samurai sword. Zelda’s about to inject a new mode of dealing with zombies. Yup, what you’ve got to do is decapitate them before they get their teeth into you.
It’s a fun movie that succeeds better than most of its zombie genre predecessors in delivering humour to assuage the bloodletting while, in so doing, cocking a snoot at a few American social habits.
Is it the best zombie film? “Best” or “favourite” are games that I prefer not to play, but I rate “The Dead Don’t Die” up there with “Shaun of the Dead” as benchmarks for the genre.