Jim Jarmusch’s recent concentration has been with life at the end of the world (and the cultural decay that comes with it) arrives at an amusingly literal conclusion in The Dead Don’t Die, a slow-moving but knowing zombie comedy that rearranges the bones of The Night of the Living Dead into a resigned wail for a society on the brink of collapse. And while exhuming George Romero’s metaphor-heavy corpus might seem like too obvious a choice in our current age of smart phones and a not-so-smart president, this deadpan apocalypse makes that obviousness the point.
Jarmusch’s latest often feels as though it lacks a pulse, this star-studded parable is held together by one consistent truth: When Hell is full, the dead will walk the Earth. And when the Earth is already screwed, the living will do whatever they can to sleepwalk through the nightmare. This topical and anachronistic nightmare is partially focused on Bill Murray, Adam Driver and Chloe Sevigny, who all play most of the police department in Centerville, a small town between Pittsburgh and Cleveland. Centerville advertises itself as “a nice place,” and it is, in a familiar tongue-in-cheek, self-conscious manner. There are no fast food restaurants, strip malls or really any type of big brand stores. There’s a picturesque motel, a diner, a hardware store and a gas station that also stocks comics and memorabilia.
Bill Murray, Chloe Sevigny & Adam Driver in The Dead Don’t Die
Maybe that’s not your typical slice of Americana, but Jarmush has never been much for realism. He’s a melancholic utopian, displaying a world where most people are too cool to be cruel, and where aesthetic sensibilities take the place of political ideologies. The one politically minded guy in Centerville seems to be Farmer Miller (Steve Buscemi), who wears a red baseball cap that reads “Keep America White Again.” Nobody really likes him that much, not because of how he might have voted but because he’s a jerk, inordinately attached to his own property rights. He does get along with Hank though, who runs the town’s hardware store and is played by Danny Glover. Centerville isn’t a place for hard feelings or fierce arguments.
Lethargic even by Jarmush’s unhurried standards, The Dead Don’t Die is best appreciated as simply a unique taste to the aimless place the zombie genre is currently in. Besides the end of the world, almost nothing of note happens in this movie. It takes it’s smooth time strolling through the apocalypse. That said apocalypse is broadly telegraphed with the help of a concerned television news anchor (Rosie Perez). Her loose chatter talks of a process called “polar fracking” which has skewed the earth’s rotation, wreaking havoc on the planet’s daily rhythms — sometimes the sun shines bright in the middle of the night; sometimes darkness appears at noon — which disturbs the slumber of the dead. They begin to climb out of their graves and eat people in the usual sloppy, bloody way. The three cops are tasked with dealing with the situation, aided for a while by the town’s new sword-wielding coroner (Tilda Swinton). “This will end badly,” says Adam Driver’s Officer Peterson, which I won’t spoil how he knows, but I’ll just say that it’s one of many pieces in the film’s meta-humor cake. Before long a trio of carefree youths (headlined by Selena Gomez) roll into town as if to provide fresh meat and prove his point. The whole film, and the society it centers on, is stuck in a daze.
Tom Waits in The Dead Don’t Die
The Dead Don’t Die, which features a wonderful title song by Sturgill Simpson (who shows up, undead, dragging a guitar behind him), runs on mood rather than plot. And it’s not a terrible mood to be in. This is an end-of-the-world party with a stacked guest list (including the so far unmentioned Tom Waits as Hermit Bob). That party, though, only climbs off the coroner’s table about forty-five minutes in, which is also the point when we see Jarmusch’s wry take on the undead. In stark contrast to the faceless hordes that usually roam the genre, the zombies in The Dead Don’t Die are all individual characters with clear personal desires that extend beyond simply eating human flesh. The moaning walking undead are motivated by the things they loved while they were alive — the material pleasures that distracted them from the existential threats — and they chant about them to the point of self-identification.
Iggy Pop, who seems to be playing himself, busts into the Centerville diner and groans about “coffee.” Zombie Carol Kane demands “chardonnay.” Many zombies hold iPhones; one even wants Xanax. Yeah, you get the joke. Very few of the gags inspire more than a light chuckle or a simple smirk (most, if not all, come from the scene-stealing dynamic between Driver and Murray). But visualized together in Frederick Elmes’ playful day-for-night cinematography, they collect into a morbidly amusing condemnation of a society of which Hermit Bob describes “sold its soul for a Gameboy.” But, as always, the things we own end up owning us; the only new wrinkle added is the idea that everyone seems to have burned their receipts. In Jarmusch’s view, the modern world has internalized its nearsightedness as more of a attribute than a bug, and it won’t be long until we’re all forced to pay for it. Like, Officer Peterson likes to say “This ain’t gonna end well.” A shaggy (un)deadpan zombie comedy, The Dead Don’t Die is at times too self-satisfied, but ultimately is a knowing genre-tweaking experiment.