Written and Directed by: Jim Jarmusch
Starring: Adam Driver, Bill Murray, and Chloe Sevigny
Reviewed by: Brett Gallman
“This is definitely going to end badly."
Jim Jarmusch is as tired of the zombie apocalypse as you are. Following decades of mostly bleak end-of-the-world misery, Jarmusch enters the undead arena with a certain detached weariness about it all. The Dead Don’t Die supposes you’ve been here before and doesn’t try to make any grand, sweeping observations about it. At this point, it seems the only thing to do about the endtimes is to shrug at them with the acceptance of a wizened old punk slacker like Jarmusch, who’s having a lot of fun here without making a big fuss out of it. Everything that’s needed to be said has been said, so you might as well have Tom Waits wax poetic about it as a wild man in the woods, acting like some sort of brain-scrambled Greek Chorus.
Waits is Hermit Bob, an eccentric old coot literally living on the edge of Centerville, a quiet, Anywhere USA sort of town nestled somewhere between Cleveland and Pittsburgh. He’s introduced in the opening scene, where he’s having a stand-off with deputies Cliff Robertson (Bill Murray) and Ronnie Peterson (Adam Driver) because Farmer Miller (Steve Buscemi) has accused him of stealing chickens. Despite his younger colleague’s insistence that they should do something, Deputy Robertson stands down and returns to his cruiser, even after Bob fires a pellet at them. It’s an exchange that reveals everything you need to know about how they—and most of Centerville’s other citizens—will react when they find themselves right smack in the middle of a worldwide zombie outbreak.
Jarmusch helped to pioneer the American hangout film, and his approach to the zombie genre is a typically laid-back affair that unfolds with the easygoing languor of Sturgill Simpson’s theme song (itself the source of a few running jokes throughout the film). He luxuriates in the stillness of it all, subtly and wryly highlighting how small-town life already feels eerily desolate: citizens just sort of mill about, noting that the days seem too long now that the world’s literally been plunged off its axis by polar fracking, a cataclysmic event that’s probably caused the dead to rise from their graves. But no matter: folks still sip their coffee, make small talk, and listen to radio broadcasts where the frackers insist they can’t be held responsible, especially since their efforts have resulted in a financial windfall. It all seems a little bit too familiar, right down to the way everyone shakes their head and goes about their business.
Hank Thompson (Danny Glover) chats with waitresses at the town diner; Bobby Wiggins (Caleb Landry-Jones) tends to a convenience store full of candy and horror movie esoterica, and occasionally handles deliveries from a sage postal worker (RZA); Danny Perkins (Larry Fessenden) oversees a largely empty motel and frets about his missing cats; a trio of troubled youth (who are naturally smarter and more clever than the adults) watch the world crumble on TV monitors and butt heads with wardens in their detention center; another trio of kids rolls into town in a familiar looking Pontiac Lemans. Farmer Miller rubs everyone the wrong way because he’s a white supremacist, yet everyone just seems to tolerate it. So it goes in The Dead Don’t Die, an almost exceedingly nice slice-of-life movie that just happens to feature zombies. Even the first undead attack—conducted by a pair of corpses played by Iggy Pop and Sara Driver—merely inspires some morbid humor as it lightly jolts Centerville. Somehow, it just feels like a matter of fact.
Despite that, The Dead Don’t Die never feels quite flippant or irreverent either. Jarmusch strikes a tough balance here by pouring absurdity, non-sequiturs, stomach-churning gore, existential despair, and poignant character work into the mix and smoothing over it all with a layer of deadpan concrete. A lesser director could easily lose a movie featuring Tilda Swinton as a weirdo, outsider, samurai sword wielding undertaker and have it become a farce. Jarmusch, however, has patented the art of finding authenticity in heightened worlds. It’s similar to the trick Mark Frost and David Lynch pulled off with Twin Peaks: something like The Dead Don’t Die seems like it should be uproarious, but Jarmusch plays it just slightly left of center. Laughs don’t erupt so much as they seep out at subtle sight gags and perfectly-pitched dialogue, which often feel like clever punctuation marks in a string of ellipses.
His brand of dry, droll humor is a sort of quiet anarchy that’s a perfect match for the offbeat sense of cynical humanism on display in The Dead Don’t Die. Jarmusch is clearly fond of these characters and wants them to be endearing for an audience that will invest in them. It’s perhaps the most important component of a zombie movie: characters that truly matter beyond their potential to become mincemeat for ghouls. The Dead Don’t Die is almost too good at this. Despite its enormous cast (and the fact that many of its members have a handful of scenes at most), the characters leave quite an impression because it genuinely feels like we’ve dropped right into the middle of a lived-in world. Both the dialogue and the performances suggest a crucial sense of history, as if these people existed long before we ever met them.
With the most screen-time, Murray, Driver, and Chole Sevigny (the third deputy of this sparse police force) function as a lynchpin of sorts. Each captures Jarmusch’s weird, warm spirit in their own way: Murray’s a weary old hound-dog who hasn’t completely lost his righteous sense of justice. Sevigny might be the closest thing to an audience surrogate, at least in the sense that she’s doing what most of us would in this scenario: feeling overwhelmed, freaking out, but trying to hold it together as best she can. And then there’s Driver, who seems to act as one of Jarmusch’s primary mouthpieces: he’s the one who continually insists this will all end badly—not that it keeps him from having a wry sense of humor about it. Driver’s emerged as one of our more interesting actors in recent years: he’s a genuine presence, and Jarmusch channels his wiry, gangly, awkward energy into a playfully stiff turn that has him coaxing laughs by restraining his physicality and leaning on his unique vocal inflection for laughs.
It’s a terrific, unassuming performance in a film that thrives on nice, little quiet performances that speak volumes. Even the smallest roles leave you wishing for more time to hang out with these characters. RZA only has about three lines (and two scenes) in the whole thing, but you feel like you could easily watch an entire movie about him riding along, doling out wisdom with each delivery. Swinton’s role is a bit more substantial but similarly leaves you wondering what she was up to before she arrived in Centerville. You’ll definitely be wondering what she’ll be doing after leaving Centerville. Jarmusch even does the impossible by making Caleb Landry Jones, whose career arc up to this point largely suggests he was genetically engineered to be a noxious little shit in every movie, an affable weirdo. Spoilers from this point on.
Having the audience invest in all of these characters feels like an elaborate setup to Jarmusch’s ultimate punchline when it turns out nothing can save them. All of these nice characters share the same fate as Farmer Miller, the racist wearing a familiar red cap emblazoned with “Keep America White Again,” who’s eventually torn apart by a pack of zombies. Jarmusch suggests that oblivion doesn’t discriminate. Eventually, just about everyone—the nice ones, the nasty ones, the young ones, the old ones—will meet their end. Imagining such grim inevitability isn’t exactly novel, nor is it too profound, especially in this genre. But I think Jarmusch knows that, and it’s his apparently blasé attitude towards it that’s most striking here. Where Romero often found morbid cynicism and others a dogged sense of hope in the apocalypse, Jarmusch finds a zen-like calm about it all.
I wouldn’t mistake his resignation as fatalistic; rather, it strikes me much more as a weird sort of complacency, almost as if nothing—the causes, the motivations, the fallout—really matters once we’re gone because, well, we’re gone. In this respect, The Dead Don’t Die lands somewhere between a homage and a spoof of the zombie genre. Jarmusch certainly has a heightened awareness of the expectations here and lightly thrashes them. When Selena Gomez and her two companions roll up in that Pontiac, another character compliments it as very George Romero. He wants you to know that he knows that you know. He also takes the obligatory, anvil-subtle satirical pot-shots at materialism and consumerism: it’s Romero’s vision heightened to even more absurd levels, as the dead shuffle along, reflexively blurting out the stuff they craved as humans (“Skittles!” “Guitar!” “Chardonnay!”). Characters practically paraphrase dialogue form Dawn of the Dead, pointing out how the undead aren’t much different from the living after all. And just to be doubly sure that you get it, Driver eventually breaks the fourth wall when he reveals the source of his certainty about all of this ending badly: he’s read the script.
But what’s the point of hearing all this for the umpteenth time, especially when it’s affected with a detached, ironic wit? Maybe that ironic wit is the point. Maybe if we’re really going to wallow in our complacency as the characters do here, this is what we get. Like them, we hear authorities lying on the news and see what’s really happening around us but feel powerless to stop it. The Dead Don’t Die supposes that maybe there’s nothing we can do, so we might as well embrace the beauty and catharsis of oblivion (well, unless we can hitch a ride aboard a UFO, or if we’re young and clever enough to find a safe place to hide). For most of us, however, Jarmusch envisions the quaintest, quietest zombie apocalypse imaginable, one where the crumbling moon bathes the earth in a strange, day-for-night glow that’s more otherworldly than it is eerie.
Maybe this, too, is misdirection: after all, Jarmusch mocks his own artistry when Waits closes the film with a florid, lyrical poetry about zombies ripping people limb from limb before ending on a much more blunt declaration that cuts right to the heart of the matter: “what a fucked-up world this is,” he grunts, almost chiding the audience for attaching any sort of beauty and meaning to these morbid proceedings. Maybe this is the film’s real punchline: what if this breezy, easygoing zombie movie has a little bit of a caustic bite to it after all? Sure, it could be one last shrug of resignation or yet another moment of Zen; however, I can’t help but detect a little bit of disgust with the way we’ve become so acquainted with nihilism that we’ve turned to an entire genre as a coping mechanism.
The film's ending suggests there could actually be some young survivors: the question is what kind of world will they inherit? The one that RZA insists we should appreciate because it's perfect, or the one that Hermit Bob looks on with a hint of disdain? Jarmusch doesn't give you the answer, but you sense his hope that somebody figures it out.
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