In Jim Jarmusch’s The Dead Don’t Die, a terrible calamity engulfs the world: Zombies rise from the grave and start indiscriminately consuming the flesh of the living. The townspeople of Centerville, the fictional sleepy burg where the film’s action is set, react as one might imagine, by running in terror, barricading themselves in their homes, and praying for survival. Some of them hope against hope that the whole thing will end as mysteriously as it began. “Maybe it’ll all just go away, like a bad dream,” says Cliff (played by Bill Murray), one of the local police officers trying to combat the undead threat. “I doubt it,” deadpans his colleague Ronnie (Adam Driver).
It’s the kind of bleakly funny exchange Jarmusch has long excelled at, but it’s also the philosophy underpinning the project, which presents itself as a spoof but mostly comes across as a deeply cynical film about the future of our species. Any great zombie movie doubles as a piece of social commentary, and yet Jarmusch’s droll parable about the end times seems to predict that humanity will greet the apocalypse with little more than a baffled shrug. The Dead Don’t Die is the first horror film I’ve seen that seemed as likely to lull me to sleep as to give me nightmares.
The general trope of a reanimated horde shuffling toward its prey ready to chomp is such a familiar one that the simplest tweaks—such as 28 Days Later making its zombies able to run—feel like a revolution. Jarmusch’s big joke is that, in death, people return to the obsessions they had when they were alive, so a corpse played by Carol Kane wanders around aimlessly muttering “Chardonnay” and trying to break into a liquor store. It’d be cute if it hadn’t been done before, and better, by George A. Romero (the master of this particular subgenre), who dispatched his monsters to a shopping mall to mock American consumerist society in Dawn of the Dead.
Instead, the spookiness of The Dead Don’t Die comes across most effectively in strange little details. Officers Cliff and Ronnie first realize something weird is going on when the sun doesn’t set at its appointed hour, every TV signal starts to break up into weird static, and a mournful country song (fittingly titled “The Dead Don’t Die”) by Sturgill Simpson keeps playing on the radio. When Cliff asks why it’s so familiar, Ronnie answers with Driver’s trademark blankness: “It’s the theme song.”
Jarmusch slips in fourth-wall-breaking moments like this one throughout the action—as if, given that zombies exist only in the movies, characters such as Ronnie start believing they must be inside one right now. What larger purpose this approach serves, though, I couldn’t fully discern. It could be a comment on the human tendency to fantasize. Grafting the strangeness of real life onto the comforting narrative of a genre film is a concept many of us lean on to get through the day, after all, so maybe Jarmusch is poking fun at that. Or perhaps he’s just looking for something to set the action of The Dead Don’t Die apart, because once the undead start staggering around and eating people’s flesh, things start to feel awfully lifeless (pardon the pun).
Though made on a small budget, the film features a stacked ensemble of Jarmusch regulars, some of whose cameos are better than others. I was charmed by the banter between Danny Glover and Caleb Landry Jones as shopkeepers who bar themselves in a hardware store, and by Tilda Swinton’s performance as a samurai-sword-toting Scottish mortician. I was less intrigued by Steve Buscemi as a Donald Trump supporter wearing a red hat and wielding a shotgun, and by Selena Gomez as a hipster from Cleveland in search of a fun night on the town. Jarmusch’s script ping-pongs from location to location, character to character, but viewers are never given a reason to care about any of them.
My favorite Jarmusch films, such as Dead Man, Mystery Train, and 2016’s quiet masterpiece Paterson, have the proper empathy for their characters to balance their sometimes mordant outlook. Not so with The Dead Don’t Die. In fact, the funniest and most relatable person in the movie is Ronnie—who, when faced with the end of the world, calmly reminds everyone around him that there’s nothing they can do to stop it. Driver somehow projects a sort of comfort through this grim pessimism; even in a mostly throwaway role like this one, he remains one of the most transfixing performers working in Hollywood right now. But The Dead Don’t Die has little else to offer. The world might be ending, but people still go to the movie theater to be entertained, and Jarmusch seems to have forgotten that part of the equation this time around.
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