Earlier this year, independent film icon Jim Jarmusch released his oddball foray into the horror genre with the zombie film The Dead Don’t Die. Unsurprisingly, The Dead Don’t Die proved to be a very divisive film among critics with a few (like myself) enjoying Jarmusch’s laidback zombie comedy and others underwhelmed by unsubtle political aspects and very dry humor. Now Jarmusch’s unconventional take on the zombie genre lands on Blu-ray and DVD where it’ll likely continue to polarize audiences. It’s simply a movie that works well if you’re on its wavelength, but not too many people are on Jim Jarmusch’s wavelength as evidenced by his eclectic filmography over the years.
The quiet little town of Centersville is policed by Chief Cliff Robertson (Bill Murray) along with his dedicated deputies Ronnie (Adam Driver) and Mindy (Chloë Sevigny). The policework is relatively mundane, like the first scene of the film where Cliff and Ronnie confront Hermit Bob (Tom Waits) over possibly stealing a chicken from the local Farmer Frank (Steve Buscemi). Buscemi’s character is the first notable instance of Jarmusch’s dispensing with subtleties in his political commentary with the right-wing farmer wearing a read hat embroidered with the slogan “Keep America White Again,” as well as being the owner of a dog named Rumsfeld. Other characters who comprise the diverse population of Centersville include a horror-obsessed gas station clerk (Caleb Landry Jones),a philosophical Wu-PS delivery driver (RZA), a weary old laborer (Danny Glover), the owner of the local diner (Eszter Balint), the local hotel manager (Larry Fessenden), a trio of incarcerated youths (Taliyah Whitaker, Jahi Di’Allo Winston, and Maya Delmont), a young woman (Selena Gomez) just driving through town with a couple of friends, and Zelda (Tilda Swinton), the town’s new eccentric mortician from Scotland.
When the zombies start returning to life to feast on the flesh of the living, it’s explained that the Earth has been shifted off its axis by the industrial plague of polar fracking. Once again, Jarmsuch isn’t trying to score points with subtlety. He’s opting to clearly define that this is a problem created by man, his boundless greed and absolute indifference towards the natural world. Cell phones have stopped working. The hours of daylight have been shifted. It’s not long before the dead rise from the grave in order to eat the flesh of the living, one of the most featured zombies is played by punk rock legend Iggy Pop in a piece of pitch perfect casting. The punk icon is not only feasts upon the flesh of unfortunate souls, but also indulges in some coffee, even retaining enough semblance of humanity to eerily moan “Coffee.”
The Dead Don’t Die bucks genre convention with Jarmusch’s trademark relaxed style of storytelling. He’s uninterested in building tension or creating suspense punctuated by jump scares. His form of horror comes from the inevitability of these characters’ demise. The damage to the world has been done and all of these characters – no matter if they’re likable or loathsome – will have to face the consequences of man’s detrimental actions to the planet. It’s pretty obvious that the difference between climate change and flesh-eating zombies is negligible in the eyes of Jim Jarmsuch. Man will sow the seeds of his own destruction one way or another, one just happens to be more entertaining on a movie screen.
What is perhaps the most surprising element about The Dead Don’t Die is the way in which Jarmusch utilizes a streak of meta humor that has characters frequently stating they’re in a movie. The opening theme song, “The Dead Don’t Die” by Sturgill Simpson, is played a number of times in the film, and the characters remark on its familiarity while Adam Driver’s Ronnie reminds us that “it’s the theme song.” Throughout the film, Ronnie repeats the phrase “This is definitely going to end badly.” When asked why he knows the horrific fate that awaits everyone around him he dryly tells Bill Murray’s Cliff that he “read the script.” It’s in this moment that shatters the fourth wall that these actors drop the façade of their characters and, Murray especially, laments what an asshole Jim Jarmusch is. There’s such a relaxed, fun attitude to The Dead Don’t Die that you can just imagine Jarmusch calmly directing this film with a cup of coffee in one hand and a cigarette in the other and quietly laughing at the realization that most people just aren’t going to get what’s he is going for.
The Dead Don’t Die is a unique entry in the filmography of Jim Jarmusch. It maintains his laidback style but lacks the quiet lyricism of most of his arthouse films. And yet the writer-director doesn’t stifle himself with genre conventions. There is not another zombie movie like The Dead Don’t Die. It’s a film only Jim Jarmusch could make. It beats to its drum. It’s laidback but not deadly dull. It’s got a robust sense of humor but not always laugh-out-loud hilarious. It’s a zombie movie completely uninterested in scares. It’s an imperfect film that reflects a growingly imperfect moment in time. As every day seems to be more and more off kilter, as if the Earth has been pushed off its axis, we find ourselves closer and closer to the catastrophic reckoning that man’s greed has brought to our little planet. Maybe the only thing left to do is listen to “The Dead Don’t Die” by Sturgill Simpson and accept the gruesome inevitability.
The Dead Don't Die
A laidback, unconventional take on the zombie genre, Jim Jarmsuch’s The Dead Don’t Die will divide audiences with its dry humor, political leanings, and complete lack of interest in genre tropes, but it’s a hell of a lot of fun if you’re on the same wavelength as its singular filmmaker.