Year of release: 2019 Directed by Jim Jarmusch. Starring Bill Murray, Adam Driver, Chloë Sevigny, Steve Buscemi, Danny Glover, Caleb Landry Jones, Selena Gomez, Tom Waits, and Tilda Swinton.
“This is going to end badly.” That line quickly becomes a recurring punchline from Officer Ronnie Peterson (Adam Driver), whose last name might be a subtle reference to the previous collaboration between Driver and Jim Jarmusch. In a film overflowing with meta jokes, it’s difficult to overlook such a similarity. It’s also a bold choice for a repeated line, since it will give plenty of fodder to critics who dislike The Dead Don’t Die.
According to IMDB trivia, Tilda Swinton gave Jarmusch the idea for a zombie film while they were working on his vampire film Only Lovers Left Alive. Much like that film redefined the conventions of vampire films in service of a story focused on the role of art and relationships in a polluted world that does not value the good, true and beautiful, The Dead Don’t Die redefines the conventions of zombie films in service of a story focused on surviving in a world that is literally turning into Hell.
The Dead Don’t Die is certainly more cynical than Only Lovers Left Alive, but it is an apocalyptic film taking place in a world that has dug too deep down the rabbit hole of its own destruction. It also was made five years later than Jarmusch’s earlier film, and the world has now seen a racist, bullying fascist use his office to roll back environmental protections, lock children in cages, and peddle countless lies as “facts” every day.
If there’s any question as to whether Jarmusch intends to skewer America’s current administration and its supporters, Steve Buscemi plays a racist farmer who wears a red baseball cap with the words, “Keep America white again.”
Jarmusch is clearly disgusted by the state of American politics, but he doesn’t let his disgust give way to anger. Instead he channels it into brilliantly exploiting the fine, fine line between horror and comedy, ruthlessly highlighting the absurdity of a world choosing to endanger its own existence. Similar to Aronofsky’s Noah, which showed an apocalypse that resulted from humankind’s destruction of all creation, The Dead Don’t Die shows an apocalypse that results from polar fracking, which knocks the earth off its axis, changing its rotation, which in turn alters day and night lengths, which enables the dead to rise. How could such a scenario end other than badly?
The inevitably of the movie’s conclusion enables Jarmusch to play the resigned, deadpan, matter-of-fact humor for all it’s worth. And as far as I’m concerned, it’s worth a lot, especially with Chloë Sevigny’s everywoman Officer Mindy Morrison anchoring the normal human reactions to the horror. When Driver’s Officer Peterson tells Chief Cliff Robertson (Bill Murray) that the gruesome attack on the local diner owner was perpetrated by zombies, ghouls, the undead, the suggestion is as calmly met as if it were as common as a pack of wild animals.
The omniscience of Officer Peterson serves another greater purpose beyond the hilarious running punchline throughout the movie. Driver’s banter with Bill Murray whenever they’re driving is hilariously self-referential, and it culminates in a fantastic scene that underscores the purpose of art and the role of the artist. Even at its darkest, art holds a mirror up to the world, as the artist guides his creation down a path that hopefully gives us some understanding of the world as it as and as it should be.
Jarmusch homages other works of art as well, from Nosferatu to Night of the Living Dead to Star Wars, all of which highlight in one way or another that this version of Centerville, PA is very much not as it should be. The person best prepared for the zombie apocalypse is Hermit Bob (another frequent Jarmusch collaborator, Tom Waits) who lives in the local woods and provides a running commentary on the action. His detachment from worldly materialism is his saving grace. Science fiction and samurai films both receive a tribute (and hilarious conclusion) through the town’s new mortician Zelda Winston (Tilda Swinton). Caleb Landy Jones plays a nerdy gas station attendant whose extensive horror film knowledge helps him and Hank (Danny Glover) fare slightly better than most of the other characters.
However, because the dead don’t die, as the theme song by Sturgill Simpson says, the film is obviously going to end badly. At the same time, that doesn’t mean it is devoid of hope. The only way to kill a zombie is to destroy its head. Whether that is intended as a call for impeachment or completely cutting off our dependence on fracking and other environmentally detrimental procedures is debatable. Either way, the metaphor clearly suggests the difficulty and necessity of ceasing the destruction of our planet and its inhabitants.
With a large cast of quickly developed characters, bizarre and extremely dry humor, strong political overtones, and deliberate avoidance of any zombie film tropes, The Dead Don’t Die is obviously going to be a strong cup of coffee that not everyone appreciates. Perhaps the best litmus test for enjoying it is this. We hear the title song play over the opening credits; two minutes later it comes on the radio, and Adam Driver explains it’s the theme song, so it’s familiar. If that strikes you as hilarious, the rest of Jarmusch’s self-aware, environmentally conscious zombie apocalypse should as well.
Personal Recommendation: A