“The world is perfect. Appreciate the details.”
“What a f**ked up world.”
Two different characters say these statements at two very different times in Jim Jarmusch’s The Dead Don’t Die. The entire film resides in the tension of these two statements, between contemplation and cynicism, contentment and despair. A zombie horror comedy in the vein of Shaun of the Dead or Zombieland, Dead is an homage to B-movies and better times shot through with signature Jarmusch deadpan goofiness. Tom Waits plays a character named Hermit Bob, and Tilda Swinton portrays Zelda Winston, a Scottish mortician with a penchant for samurai swords. If those two character descriptions don’t interest you, Dead might have lost you already. But if you’re intrigued or delighted, the film has enough charm and chuckles to outweigh its overstuffed narrative.
“This isn’t gonna end well,” says youthful, stoic police officer Ronnie Peterson (Adam Driver) to his boss, Cliff Robertson (Bill Murray). The two have confronted the reclusive Hermit Bob about some stolen chickens from the “a**hole” Farmer Miller (Steve Buscemi), prompting Bob to curse and shoot at them. Cliff is an aged lawman who seems a bit wearied by the drudgery of the job, yet still committed to the task—he’ll go tell Hermit Bob to stop stealing, but he isn’t going to put the guy in jail for shooting at the officers.
“This isn’t gonna end well,” ends up as a repeated joke throughout the film, building to the point of tedium before becoming funny all over again. Dead repeats all sorts of jokes in this way, particularly characters’ listening to Sturgill Simpson’s song written for the film, “The Dead Don’t Die.” Or there’s the continuous failing of technology, especially television screens, radios, and mobile phones. In the opening credits, an unexplained pixelated glitch suddenly appears during the “Focus Features” introduction, setting the tone for the rest of the film and the repeated glitches throughout—even when it’s familiar, this film will be off-center and out-of-place, as if we’ve seen this all before, yet not quite like this.
Indeed, the traditional zombie apocalypse has come to Centreville, USA—the town motto: “A Real Nice Place”—due to the results of polar fracking; the Earth’s axis has now become unstable, leading all sorts of unnatural consequences. With reanimated corpses coming out of the earth—“ghouls” as Ronnie calls ‘em—the small town is thrown into a panic as the dead…well…just won’t die. “Kill the head,” says Ronnie to Cliff, a line (and action) which is repeated again and again and again and again and…you get the picture.
What Jarmusch is doing here has been done plenty before, and that’s the point—he’s feeding the hordes of America what they crave. For me, I’m craving more of Tom Waits and Tilda Swinton. The two of them are exceptional and wonderfully silly here, as are Driver and Murray in the lead roles. The supporting cast is excellent as well, with Chloe Sevigny as a fellow police officer, Danny Glover as a regular at the local diner, and Caleb Landry Jones as a nerdy cinephile gas station attendant (seeing lots of zombie movies equips you to handle the “real” thing). Yet various narrative threads trying to link the huge cast of characters become unwieldly, leaving plenty of frustrating loose ends in the plot, particularly around a group of teenagers in a juvenile detention center and Selena Gomez as a “hipster” from Cleveland. It is difficult to really care about the characters and their predicament; as they die, one by one, we’re just meant to laugh. As the zombies are driven by the urge to return to their obsessions and idols from a previously life (coffee, toys, sports, Wifi, chardonnay), Jarmusch gives us a deluge of gore and satire, but without offering us much of a glimpse into either how we got ourselves into this apocalyptic mess, nor how we’re going to get ourselves out. If Jarmusch’s Paterson leaned towards the former of the two statements opening this review, The Dead Don’t Die revels in the latter: the world is f**cked up, so let’s just go down swinging, zombies be damned.