Writer and director Jim Jarmusch’s The Dead Don’t Die is a baffling yet hilariously weird zombie film. There might be a wee bit of condescending tone as possibly Jarmusch thinks he’s too good for the genre but it is consistently odd. Tonally set on mumbling neutral most of the time everyone is sort of dopey and there are a lot of secondary characters that are basically there for extended star cameos, but the ambling folksy vibe works as a deadpan counterpoint when the dead start eating people. This isn’t a zombie classic but it is a bizarre one.
In a sleepy town, police officers Cliff (Bill Murray), Ronnie (Adam Driver) and Mindy (Chole Sevigny) are doing their job which basically consists of making sure a crazy local Hermit Bob (Tom Waits) doesn’t harm anyone. Even when Hermit Bob shoots at them Roland says they should finally bring him in, yet Cliff just says no. What has Hermit Bob so antsy is that the environment is crazy because polar fracking has made the Earth shift. This has caused the dead to rise from their graves and feed on the living. Now the cops fight a horde of zombies while a weirdo badass katana wielding mortician, Zelda (Tilda Swinton), is easily decapitating the undead. Zelda is doing much better than the rest of the townsfolk who up end adding to the undead army with no safety in sight.
Zombies have been used as social commentary for a very long time ever since the original Night of the Living Dead movies and later overt comedy efforts Shaun of the Dead or Zombieland. So The Dead Don’t Die using members of the undead as metaphor isn’t particularly original or innovative. However, it finds a new quirk as here the undead are drawn to their old activities, places and passions after they rise. There’s a pair of zombies at the start (one played by Iggy Pop!) who after engaging in gruesome bloody actions at a diner they drone “Coffee” while smashing cups. Another zombie, played by Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt actress Carol Kane, wakes up and simply says “Chardonnay”. There’s also zombies looking at their phones moaning “Wi–fi”. It isn’t exactly subtle but it is amusing. It should be noted the reason for the dead rising here is environmental damage which gives the movie a somewhat awkward message; be nicer to the Earth or undead zombies will eat you. The look of the zombies is fairly standard but there is an interesting quirk when they are killed, they don’t splatter. Instead they simply release puffs of dust which may not make much sense but looks different.
Both Murray and Driver have fun low–key reactions to the carnage unfolding. When they stumble across the aftermath of a zombie slaughter at a diner, Driver just goes “Ew, yuck!” Later, when they find a bunch of people who have been gruesomely murdered, Driver nonchalantly goes about cutting off their heads to make sure they don’t come back which is very darkly funny and gruesome. The annoying character is Sevigny’s officer who basically just does the standard freak out role although she has a funny bit where she completely breaks with reality seeing her Granny as a zombie. A smaller role is Swinton’s mortuary attendant who just gets weirder as the movie goes on, leaving on an incredibly strange note.
The supporting characters are sort of a mixed bag. Waits’ Hermit Bob basically acts as the movie’s narrator and tacks a moral on the end of the film. There are subplots about kids in a juvenile detention facility who are never interesting, Selena Gomez plays a hipster gal with her friends who are also dull but they have a fun final scene. Popping up briefly is Steve Buscemi as a MAGA hat wearing farmer who just seems annoyed that zombies are trespassing on his property and there is also a small role from Danny Glover as a local store employee who is friendly to everyone, even when he turns into a zombie.
The ending is incredibly, gloriously, randomly stupid, even by zombie apocalypse standards. Driver’s repeated line of “This isn’t going to end well” throughout the third act comes to fruition on a number of levels. It either ends badly for the characters or the movie itself decides to just say t’heck with it and throws out random stuff. Throughout there’re a lot of meta layers such as Driver’s character comments on the Sturgill Simpson song “The Dead Don’t Die” which he knows “because it’s the theme”. Simpson’s song is a folksy, blues western tune literally about zombies that plays repeatedly saying tunefully “And after life is over, the afterlife goes on”. Everyone seems to know the song, with eventually Murray’s character getting sick of it. The meta layers get even crazier at the end which breaks the fourth wall with characters directly commenting on the director and script.
The Dead Don’t Die is an oddball film. It doesn’t deconstruct the zombie genre like Shaun of the Dead nor does it have the existential dread that great zombie movies can create. This is a quirky indie movie take on zombies that may not entirely embrace the potential of the zombie genre but is strange enough to be unique. V
THE DEAD DON’T DIE
Director: Jim Jarmusch
Starring: Bill Murray,
Adam Driver and