It’s funny to see an esoteric “I-don’t-care-what-you-think” filmmaker like Jim Jarmusch get a critical drubbing in the aftermath of him arguably returning to form. When his latest project, the zombie film The Dead Don’t Die, premiered at Cannes in May, people, perhaps, were expecting something more along the lines of his recent output — the dark, cool depth of Only Lovers Left Alive or the understated beauty of Paterson — and inevitably, what followed would defy expectation as much as Jarmusch’s turn towards the populist did years ago.
The Dead Don’t Die is shaggy as fuck, a deadpan zombie comedy that finds Jarmusch exploring things that he finds funny, perhaps to the detriment of what the audience might find amusing, but buried underneath it all is a cutting, painful bitterness about the end of both the genre and the world itself. In a way, you could call it The Last Zombie Film, though, much like the ghouls at its heart, it won’t stop coming back no matter how many times you pump it full of lead.
Boasting a cast billed as “the greatest ever… disassembled,” Jarmusch takes us inside the town of Centerville, an average ho-hum American town outfitted with the full tableau of the director’s wondrous losers. There’s Chief Cliff Robinson (Bill Murray), whose laconic vibes mesh well with that of his co-workers, the stolid doom-sayer Ronnie (Adam Driver) and the sensitive Mindy (Chloe Sevigny). There’s Hank (Danny Glover), the hardware store owner, who often shares conversation over a cup of coffee with Farmer Miller (Steve Buscemi) at the local diner, despite the latter’s “Keep America White Again” hat. There’s Bobby (Caleb Landry Jones), the horror-loving gas station attendant who asks Dean (RZA), a spiritual mailman, for nuggets of wisdom alongside his packages; and Danny (Larry Fessenden), the motel owner who keeps close watch on three visiting “hipsters,” among them Zoe (Selena Gomez), who has a rad ol’ car.
Spying on all of them from the cover of the woods — and providing the film with its key narration — is Hermit Bob (Tom Waits), who Cliff went to high school with and then spirited off into the forest to live in perfect isolation, in touch with nature. Bob kicks off the movie by taking pot shots at Cliff and Ronnie when they come out to see if he’s stolen one of Farmer Miller’s chickens, and, after that encounter, the three characters, having gone their separate ways, realize that something a little weird is occurring.
The days are growing longer, for whatever reason; odd plants are growing in the woods, and the birds themselves seem to be fleeing some oncoming disaster. The townspeople take this into account, and begin to suspect something involving “polar fracking” occurring thousands of miles away, but there’s not really much they can do. And, after all, the government is telling them that it’s fine, and won’t harm anything. Yet, late that (long) night, a pair of rotting corpses (Iggy Pop and Sara Driver, Jarmusch’s longtime producer) rise from their graves and attack the local diner, killing the owner (Eszter Balint, re-teaming with Jarmusch after 30-plus years since Stranger Than Paradise) and the janitor (Rosal Colon) in the process of acquiring hot and fresh coffee.
Yes, that’s right: The zombies in this movie are attracted to the things that they used to love when they were living, and see their favorite things out after they’ve consumed some flesh. Arriving on the scene in his SmartCar, Ronnie quickly deduces that the attack was committed by the undead, and the trio of officers begin to prepare the town for the inevitable. Sure enough, it happens soon: Oddball mortician Zelda (a scene-stealing Tilda Swinton), who also happens to be a katana-wielding Scot, discovers that her corpses are coming back to life, and a corpse (Carol fuckin’ Kane) being kept in a jail cell reanimates and scares the hell out of the officers. It’s the end of the world, and, as Ronnie fears, it’ll all end badly for our cast of characters.
So, this isn’t Zombieland, and if you really want something in that vein, I highly recommend you save your pennies for the sequel that’s coming later this year. A lot of The Dead Don’t Die concerns things that Jarmusch himself would find funny, rather than things he thinks you, the audience member, might find humorous, and that approach — in that he’s trying to make himself laugh, and if you do it’s just a happy coincidence — feels deliberately tuned towards alienation. A good example of that might be the constant labelling of Gomez’s traveling pals as “hipsters” by the police officers and the motel owner, which reflects a sort of dissatisfaction on Jarmusch’s part with how he’s been treated in the press over the years.
Driver’s given the meat of the film’s jokes, as the man has never met a deadpan line that he can’t sell like hell, and it’s astonishing how much milage he gets out of the film’s two real recurring jokes (there’s also a great Star Wars gag in here as well, and I hope to get a GIF of his reaction to it as soon as I possibly can). One’s about the film’s theme song, which was penned and performed by alt-country virtuoso Sturgill Simpson, and the other is, as mentioned above, his quiet predictions of the horrors that await them, which pays off in a way that will piss people off, though I found it hilarious. Swinton’s deep commitment to her odd character is delightful as well, and Sevigny is, not-so-secretly, the heart of the film, as she brings a much needed emotional perspective to the film’s ironic distance. Her scenes with Murray are oddly affecting bits of honest sadness that have a shelf-life especially crafted for the dark days ahead.
But as the film reaches its conclusion, the more metaphor starts weighing down the film, and when, over the film’s final shots, Jarmusch has Waits explain exactly the point he’s trying to make, it feels a bit like the end of Burn After Reading, where JK Simmons demands to know what we’ve learned from our experience. It’s an unfortunate misstep in an otherwise interesting film, where there’s so much to chew on from the moment-to-moment substance of the film itself that one honestly might have benefitted from a more vague reading of events. But those pieces stand in opposition to Waits’ hasty thesis, and the perfunctory ending doesn’t stop it from being effective. The Dead Don’t Die is, in essence, about the collapse of all narrative in-and-of itself in the face of nihilistic extinction, where “reality” and “genre” are forced to collide in a way that ultimately undoes the both of them (see the constant collapse of the fourth wall, or the metafictional jokes that pepper Driver’s dialogue).
There are no happy endings here — no helicopters coming to the mall’s roof to be found, no military intervention outside the Winchester will happen — and ultimately, it feels more in line with Romero’s original creation than a lot of the films in Night’s wake. There’s just the collapse of everything we’ve worked so hard as a species to make — community, friendships, lives, an agreed-upon reality — and the environment, our one wondrous gift from the cosmos that we’re slowly obliterating in the pursuit of our in-the-moment needs.
The Dead Don’t Die is a hard film to recommend to zombie fans, or even fans of the director’s previous forays into the world of genre, given just how dedicated Jarmusch is to burning the very crowd that would turn out for it, but it may be of its moment in more than many have given it credit for.