Jim Jarmusch’s signature deadpan meets the undead in his star-studded take on the zombie subgenre, The Dead Don’t Die. Don’t expect any of the survivalist thrills of The Walking Dead, or even the high-energy satire of Shaun of the Dead. The latest by the director of Paterson and Coffee and Cigarettes stages an intentionally anti-climactic apocalypse in the slow-going rural no-where of Centerville, Pennsylvania.
At first glance, Jarmusch’s sedated entry will seem forgettable stacked up against zombie movies with more sociological bite, or gleeful violence, and horror die-hards expecting some sort of trail-blazing flex in a new direction will be disappointed. What The Dead Don’t Die does offer is a breezy, patchwork of small-town lives, vaguely reminiscent of the quaint sheriff’s station and the local diner clientele of Twin Peaks, similarly zany but filtered through and playing off the conventions of the zombie movie. The result is an unrushed, meandering hour and forty minutes that manages to trivialize everything we expect from the zombie movie to droll, confounding effect.
Jarmusch updates the root-cause of the apocalypse from the typical disease epidemic or scientific experiment gone wrong to a consequence of ecological irresponsibility. Excessive oil fracking in the north and south poles causes the Earth to tilt off its axis, inducing bizarre side-effects: days and nights that no longer align with our sense of time, fleeing animals, and of course, the reanimation of corpses.
When the first pair of zombies attack the diner and leave behind the chewed up remains of two victims, the local police force – flimsily comprised of the lazy Chief Robertson (Bill Murray), cynical realist Ronnie (Adam Driver), and nervous Mindy (Chloe Sevigny) – awkwardly inspects the scene. It’s not so much about about the horror of their discovery here than the comic tragedy of the fact that they’ve got no fucking clue what they’re doing. At least Ronnie is certain he knows what they’re up against. Definitely zombies. And things are definitely not going to end well, a catchphrase he repeats again and again throughout the movie, and one of the many ways in which Jarmusch toys with a meta-cinematic breaking down of the fourth wall.
The townspeople are an odd and lonely bunch. There’s serial nerd and gas station clerk, Bobby Wiggins, played by Caleb Landry Jones, and Danny Glover’s Hank, a soft-spoken owner of a hardware store. Steve Buscemi plays MAGA sympathist, Farmer Frank, who mistakes his zombie intruders as merely property trespassers. A group of hipsters from Cleveland, led by pin-up darling Zoe (Selena Gomez), make an unfortunate pit stop in Centreville the night when things go haywire, and a threesome of black and brown kids stuck in a juvenile detention center – perhaps the only characters with their heads screwed on right – anticipate the horrifying shit that inevitably goes down. Meanwhile Tilda Swinton is as weirdly wonderful as ever as a Scottish mortician with killer samurai sword skills. Tom Waits plays Hermit Bob, who observes from a distance as Centreville goes to hell. The zombies gravitate to what they loved in life: zombified Iggy Pop seeks out coffee, Sturgill Simpson a guitar, and Carol Kane champagne. Out in the wilderness, Bob lives a life envied by no one. So the zombies don’t bother him.
Jarmusch is perhaps too knowingly clever in his referential comedy and in his poking fun at character tropes and cliches. If the point is to underscore the banality of life even under such extreme conditions, then this might be one of his bleakest films to date. As a comedy, The Dead Don’t Die at times misses the mark in its self-satisfied genre tinkering. There’s little suspense to the act of dying and turning by the hands of the undead, and the film practically mocks the survivalist mindset of other zombie movies. Perhaps this subversion is its triumph, though at the expense of a more engaging, or consequential movie.