The Dead Don’t Die hits the coffin-nail on the head with a sledgehammer in the absolute funniest and most skewering way. Jim Jarmusch’s recent horror comedy is about as subtle as a yellow-jacket sting. He goes after … well, all of us. Polar Fracking has caused the Earth to shift on its axis, not causing earthquakes and tidal waves as countless disaster movies before predicted, but precipitating a zombie apocalypse.
The Dead Don’t Die received very middling reviews when it premiered. While I like Jarmusch, his films run a little hot and cold with me, so I gave this one a pass at the multiplex. That said, I knew this would not be your daddy’s zombie movie. Anyone expecting The Walking Dead, Dawn of the Dead, 28 Days Later, etc. was bound to be very very disappointed. And after watching on home video, I am here to tell you this film it is so very Jim Jarmusch. Perhaps the MOST Jim Jarmusch. Slow, restrained, deadpan, darkly witty, and no — it is not an action movie.
In many ways, we simultaneously watch a send-up and homage of red-scare 50’s sci-fi and horror. Jarmusch’s inspiration seems firmly rooted old school B movies like It Came from Outer Space, and Them! Just as those films comment on impending nuclear doom, The Dead Don’t Die blames cell phones, video games, fossil fuel energy addiction … all of which lead us to an inevitable, horrible, painful, scary end.
Hermit Bob (played as a creepy homeless voyeur by Tom Waits) serves as the audience surrogate: “I guess all them ghost people plumb lost their goddamn souls. Must have traded ‘em away, or sold ‘em for gold or whatnot. New trucks, kitchen appliances, new trousers, Nintendo Game Boys, shit like that. Just hungry for more stuff.” He literally accuses society of selling our souls to the devil, and the hell we are given takes shape as our lifeless bodies become undead ghouls. Bob stumbles upon a copy of Moby Dick, opens to Chapter 27 and reads aloud: “Nameless miseries of the numberless mortals.” The context of the book is a bit different but here it seems clear that we are all mortal, doomed to suffer and die, but without any redemption at hand.
The Dead Don’t Die offerers a modern condemnation of human arrogance. Officer Ronnie Peterson (a top-of-his-game Adam Driver) tells police Chief Cliff Robertson (a typically awesome Bill Murray) how to fight zombies entirely based on his knowledge gained from movies and pop culture. Bobby Wiggins (Caleb Landry Jones) tells Hank (Danny Glover) that he has seen pretty much every zombie movie ever made, and this makes him an expert on killing the undead in the real world. I can’t tell you what happens, but let’s just say the dead may not die, but the living … well they are fragile creatures.
If you are up for a little morality tale with a bunch of weirdo characters and a few hard stabs at our current political administration, then dive right in. A batshit crazy zombie treat awaits. Bill Murray and Adam Driver deliver spectacular understated performances. Ronnie’s response when they find the first chewed up victims of the recently undead is “Oh yuck. What the hell did that? A wild animal? Several Wild Animals?” The only shock and awe we see are the most subtle movements of their throats and eyes. No histrionics, no screaming, no running. And it is fukcing hysterical.
We meander through the town as all the people from the cemetary come back to undead life and climb out of their graves. And this process is the height of Jarmuschiness. These ghouls are super-chill, and they seem to have some semblance of who they were intact. The fashionista, the tennis player, coffee drinkers. No one gets excited about much of anything. Things happen slowly and only to take us where Jarmusch wants us to go.
The undead look for food. Human brains and flesh according to Ronnie. And even in this simple task, Jarmusch does not disappoint … we know all the victims by this point in the film. The casting is spot on … Larry Fessenden, Tilda Swinton and Selena Gomez are particularly fun and funny.
Knowing our victims makes it all the more shocking as Ronnie and Cliff continue to have hysterically muted responses. Some of the townsfolk fight back as if they have been preparing for this their entire lives. They die anyway. Some are afraid and overwhelmed and they also die. Seems like we all die in the end.
I give The Dead Don’t Die 8.25 pints of squirting blood out of 10 dusty zombie brains.
Other thoughts (minor spoilers down here):
WARNING: Mild Spoiler Ahead
There is a great nod to Adam Driver’s Star Wars fame when we see Ronnie’s keychain trinket is an Imperial Star Destroyer.
The Dead Don’t Die song by Sturgill Simpson is genius.
Tilda Swinton plays a super weirdo mortician from Scotland. She may or may not be standing in for fear of foreigners.
Of all the weird things in this movie, one of the weirdest is a minute of dialogue in which Cliff and Ronnie acknowledge inside the context of the move that they are working off a script written by “Jim.” It’s kinda like breaking the 4th wall, but it isn’t because they don’t acknowledge us the audience, but only acknowledge that they are following a prescribed unalterable course of actions.
Aliens. Nuff said.