Jim Jarmusch has had a long career of making use of dry wit and observation. In the ’80s his debut feature Stranger Than Paradise was an indie darling for its deconstructive technique (it broke the line!) and laconic humor. His career since has been sustained by films like Down by Law and Night on Earth which have attracted the wildest of ensemble casts. A passionate fan of genre films as well as the arthouse fare that he’s likened to, Jarmusch’s spin on westerns and vampire movies like Dead Man and Only Lovers Left Alive inject a calm pace and referential approach, subverting expectations and breathing life into formulas often grown-rigid in their success. The Dead Don’t Die is perhaps Jarmusch’s “most-genre” movie yet, and certainly his biggest release yet.
The Dead Don’t Die
Director: Jim Jarmusch
Release Date: June 14, 2019
The small town of Centerville is Your Town, USA. A slice of Middle American life in which local law enforcement Cliff Robertson (Bill Murray) and Ronnie Peterson (Adam Driver) are called on to look for missing chickens, Hermit Bob (Tom Waits) scavenges the wilderness, spouting doom and gloom, and your cast of good old-fashioned Americans convene on the local diner. Jarmusch’s love of Americana, telling stories that dig into the pockets of the United States is on display but not necessarily well-used in The Dead Don’t Die, with the backdrop serving more as a spoof of the horror B-movies being homaged here, rather than the culture itself.
Still, The Dead Don’t Die isn’t brainless in its commentary. With reports of “polar fracking” playing over the radios and characters incessantly commenting on the strange occurrences of the day, it isn’t long before the dead start to walk the Earth, nibbling here and there at the citizens of Centerville. Cliff and Ronnie are joined by fellow officer Mindy Morrison (Chloe Sevigny), and we’ve got ourselves a regular zombie apocalypse.
Throughout the undead’s reign Cliff and Ronnie develop a straight-faced balancing act, with Ronnie’s practical pessimism (“This is going to end badly.”) offset by some of Cliff’s weary shock at how the world can still surprise him. Their banter doesn’t always hit on great comedy or even smart observation on the part of the writers, but I got a kick out of some of Adam Driver’s modest delivery and matter-of-fact analysis of the zombie epidemic. You have to kill the head.
And whether or not there’s a real head on the film is up in the air. The walking dead gravitate towards their desires in life. An Iggy Pop zombie moans out “Coffeeee…” while mauling a poor waitress, while undead kids flock to the streets crying “Toysss…” Most on-the-nose is the cellphone-wielding hordes, wailing for “Wi-fiiii…” and “Siriiiii…” The point becomes clear: We’re already zombies! The anti-materialist message resonates in the 21st century, but it feels to be wielded like a hammer while we all sort of get it without it being said. The aforementioned polar fracking and its profits-over-people mentality as a catalyst for the apocalypse certainly doesn’t leave much to the imagination. Jarmusch is at least pretending to be sick and tired of the way the world is spiraling, though The Dead Don’t Die doesn’t necessarily play this out in the most entertaining or clever of ways.
Romero’s original Dawn of the Dead is a clear inditement of consumerism. Zombies in a mall! But where that film doesn’t weigh its dialogue down with characters musing on the failings of modern capitalism, The Dead Don’t Die shackles its cadaverous legs with “substance.”
There are also vague jabs at contemporary politics, something an American film with a conscious almost owes itself to do. Steve Buscemi’s Farmer Miller is a cantankerous, racist pile, who has the gall to carry a conversation with diner patron Hank (Danny Glover) while he wears a red “Make America white again” hat. What does Jarmusch intend, beyond a vague piece of costuming to cement ourselves in the times? Like we’ve seen with Don’t Die‘s humor and overarching story, the political commentary is simply lacking; there’s not a lot of meat on these old bones.
It often feels a tad tired. If it isn’t particularly funny or scary, and it doesn’t exactly touch upon profundity, what’s left..? Well Tilda Swinton as a katana-wielding mortician is certainly a bit of fun, but even then it’s a little too stilted and obvious. She’s a quirky foreigner! “Quirk” is about the long and short of it, with fourth-wall breaking and a murk of pop culture references clearly signaling Jarmusch’s fondness for the genre, but not really going anywhere with it.
The Dead Don’t Die feels like a bit of a wet noodle for Jarmusch, whose work I’ve loved for so long but was let down by his previous Paterson. Rather than instill the genre with his signature wit and knowledge of film history, the way Ghost Dog: Way of the Samurai did for mob/hitman films, Jarmusch’s zombie romp simply feels a bit like a walking corpse.