“The Dead Don’t Die,” Reviewed: Jim Jarmusch’s Fiercely Political Zombie Comedy
The film that Jim Jarmusch’s new horror comedy, “The Dead Don’t Die,” most reminds me of is Frederick Wiseman’s “Monrovia, Indiana,” a 2018 documentary about social life and civic routines in a small Midwestern town. In its mournful and death-steeped view of Monrovia’s somnolent and baffled residents, Wiseman’s film struck me as a documentary version of a zombie film. “The Dead Don’t Die” is an actual zombie film about the American center—or, rather, dead center—set in the fictitious Pennsylvania town of Centerville, where the population is seven hundred and thirty-eight but soon turns out to fluctuate rapidly. Jarmusch’s film is an exuberantly imaginative comedy that’s also as fervently, vehemently, bitterly political as Wiseman’s documentary.
“The Dead Don’t Die” is also a film of extremes. Though Jim Jarmusch is only sixty-six, he is nearly forty years deep into his career—and “The Dead Don’t Die” can be considered his first “late” film, reflecting the kind of radical repudiation of conventions, of familiar practices, of settled ways, of ordinary life and ordinariness as such, that directors make with a sense of end times. With uproarious derisiveness yet also empathetic warmth, Jarmusch borrows a small but solid batch of horror-movie tropes to evoke an existential tabula rasa with (almost) no way out.
The premise is stark and simple: a pair of Centerville police officers—Cliff Robertson (Bill Murray), who’s the chief, and Ronnie Peterson (Adam Driver)—confront the local hermit, Hermit Bob (Tom Waits), over a trivial charge, the theft of a chicken. Then, driving away from his hideout, the officers realize that the time of day is 8:20 P.M. but the sun is still high in the sky; then their police radio goes out, then, their cell-phone service. They sense that something big is up, and they’re right: the Earth has been thrown off its axis by “polar fracking,” throwing life at large out of whack. Day and night hours are instantly unpredictable. Animals go mad; the dead soon rise up from their graves and—moving, as zombies do, at the languid pace of people to whom time means nothing—eat the living.
Jarmusch fills his film with a giddy array of idiosyncratic characters and a cast of actors who wink at the cinematic worlds of David Lynch and the Coen brothers. Mindy Morrison (Chloë Sevigny), the town’s only other police officer, is both capable and frozen in grief; Hank (Danny Glover), who owns a hardware store, endures the cantankerous presence of Frank (Steve Buscemi), a crabby and racist farmer who wears a baseball cap with the slogan “Make America White Again” and who called the cops on Hermit Bob. Bobby (Caleb Landry Jones) runs the gas station and has also turned it into a grungy boutique of horror-movie memorabilia; Dean (RZA) is an oracular deliveryman for the drolly titled WuPS. Zelda Winston (Tilda Swinton), the new undertaker, is also an expert with a samurai sword. (She also speaks with arch diction and a florid accent, and walks with a stiffly martial bearing.) Three teens (Maya Delmont, Taliyah Whitaker, and Jahi Di’Allo Winston) who are being held in the town’s juvenile detention center have a clear view of the marauding zombies; three so-called hipsters (foremost, Selena Gomez) stop over in town and stay at the local motel that’s run by the crusty Danny (Larry Fessenden), and the zombies go there, too. Then there’s the dead—foremost, Mallory (Carol Kane), Cliff’s ex, whose body is being held in a jail cell because the funeral parlor’s two slabs are both occupied.
“The Dead Don’t Die” is also akin to the other great recent American political horror comedy, Jordan Peele’s “Us.” Jarmusch’s film is similarly crammed with deftly intertwined details that lend daily life in exceptional times in Centerville a vital and invigorating texture and, at the same time, provide a deep array of visionary connections beneath the surface of the brisk and flamboyant comedic invention. The movie begins with a tragedy narrowly averted—a deadly shooting by a police officer, sparked by an accusation by a brazen racist—suggesting a world that was already way out of whack even before the Earth’s axis shifted. From the start, Ronnie declares, “This isn’t going to end well,” a refrain that he repeats throughout the film. But his observation proves to be less a matter of prophecy than of privilege: Ronnie eventually explains that he, unlike Cliff, has been allowed to read the film’s script. This outrageous breaking of the fourth wall is only one of many meta-touches with which Jarmusch adorns “The Dead Don’t Die,” starting with the title song (by Sturgill Simpson), which is first heard over the opening credits and then comes on the radio in the police car; when Cliff says that it sounds familiar, Ronnie reminds him that he has certainly heard it before, because it’s the movie’s theme song. Such playful hand-tipping has been the crux of much critical sniffiness regarding “The Dead Don’t Die.” But Jarmusch is up to something fiercely earnest—for starters, mocking critics who want and expect a movie about the dead rising from their graves to proceed with a naturalistic earnestness.
An early scene winks at David Lynch, when a pair of zombies (Iggy Pop and Sara Driver) visit the diner and, in the midst of their mayhem, call out “Coffee!,” gulping it down from the boiling carafe. As other unleashed zombies wander the town in their cannibalistic frenzies, they, too, call out for what they crave: Bluetooth, Siri, Xanax, guitar. Child zombies call for candy; others stumblingly play the sports that they loved while alive, and the newly undead, clumsy looters, leave the streets strewn with the detritus of their desires. The police officers do their best to protect the townspeople from the risen cannibals. Ronnie, though by-the-book and trigger-happy, is also a capable officer, who knows the key to resisting the zombies: “Kill the head,” or decapitate them. It turns out that the sword-wielding Zelda, a recent arrival in town from Scotland, is good at killing the heads—but whatever help she provides falls short, for special-effects-driven reasons too giddily outrageous to mention. (The spoiler-free answer is that Jarmusch mocks moviegoers and critics who are still dreaming of superheroes to save the world.) The only people who are lucid about the rampaging zombies are the outsiders—the teens in detention, separated from society, and Hermit Bob, who observes the gory action from a literal distance, through his smeary binoculars, and comments on it in a mumbled exterior monologue with a blend of sarcastic glee and rueful philosophy.
Hermit Bob is the hero of the movie. He accepts—embraces—his solitude as a moral stance, as a way of staying outside a society that he considers hopelessly corrupt. He lives in the woods, on public property, and scavenges, rustles, poaches, steals, or forages. His chief possession is a dog-eared paperback of “Moby-Dick,” from which he quotes, regarding the “nameless miseries of the numberless mortals” that he observes from afar. Bob bears the prophetic burden of Jarmusch’s apocalyptic vision, remaining relentlessly outside the system of property and consumption that bears the seeds of its own destruction, that promises happiness but brings misery, and that relentlessly destroys everyone who takes part in it. Staying resolutely, obstinately, obstreperously outside the system, he incurs the suspicion, the hatred, and the physical opposition of those who are inside of it, but he also enjoys a paradoxical measure of lucidity and freedom.
Here, too, “The Dead Don’t Die” intersects with “Monrovia, Indiana”: like Wiseman’s documentary, Jarmusch’s fantasy is a movie of public space and public life. All of the action in “The Dead Don’t Die,” as in “Monrovia, Indiana,” occurs out of doors or in public spaces, whether it’s the police station or the diner, the hardware store or the gas station, the motel or the funeral parlor. Yet Jarmusch, in his hyperbolic fiction, goes even farther than Wiseman does, presenting a view of public spaces that reflects the town’s grievous failures of private life.
The best thing about Jarmusch’s earlier venture into horror, his 2013 vampire movie “Only Lovers Left Alive,” is its title, and that title points to the achingly romantic void at the center of ‘The Dead Don’t Die”: the lack of love in Centerville. There isn’t a couple anywhere in view. There’s Cliff’s failed relationship with the late Mallory, who seemingly drank herself to death, and whom he mourns by staying in the cell adjacent to where her body’s being held for the undertaker. There’s Zelda’s point-blank interrogation of Mindy, asking the female officer whether she’s in a relationship with he “physically attractive” colleague—Ronnie. (She isn’t.) Farmer Frank lives alone; Hank seemingly does, too; Bobby is alone, Danny is alone, and the only conspicuous couple is seen in the funeral home—two dead golfers on slabs.
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“The Dead Don’t Die” is a vision of people reduced to the state of loveless, lonely consumers, or, as Hermit Bob says, people who’ve sold their souls. But it’s a teeming comedic vision nonetheless, filled with gleeful views of cars (Mindy’s Prius, Ronnie’s Smart car, the hipsters’ 1968 Pontiac LeMans—which Bobby recognizes as a George Romero touch) and of ubiquitously commonplace firearms, of whimsical dialogue and gestures, and an ample supply of genre-centric gratifications, including sometimes grotesque, sometimes parodistic cannibalistic gore. (The puffs of charcoal-like dust that rise from head-killed zombies is a fine imaginative touch.) “The Dead Don’t Die” reflects the high-styled refinement of Jarmusch’s previous film, “Paterson” (which is even hinted at in Ronnie’s last name, one letter away). With all this good humor, Jarmusch transmutes the long-term fantasy of environmental horror into the real-life and immediate horror just below the surface of daily life—and the inescapable doom that it entails into a vision of the emotional and spiritual void at hand. There isn’t any suggestion that rational, practical, or concerted solutions exist. Forewarned is still hopeless. Ronnie, after all, has the ultimate insider’s view; he has been forewarned by Jarmusch, as we all have, but there’s nothing that he—or we—can do about it.