I remember reading about the films of idiosyncratic director Jim Jarmusch in the Movies section of Entertainment Weekly throughout the course of my now-lapsed 28-year subscription, but I’ve never made an effort to watch one for myself till now. Inertia can be a pathetic anchor like that sometimes. And it’s far too easy to get distracted in a universe of nigh-unlimited cultural options, where the human mind can only hold so many directors’ names in its head at any one time, presuming one is making an effort to retain them.
When I saw Jarmusch’s name on the trailer for The Dead Don’t Die, I knew this could be no ordinary zombie film. After a long journey that involved me showing up at the wrong theater, driving halfway across the city to the correct one, nearly having a breakdown when I had to brake for a funeral procession, and arriving with plenty of minutes to spare thanks to a glut of trailers that stalled for time in my favor…then did I see my prophecy fulfilled.
Short version for the unfamiliar: Centerville (pop. 738) is the kind of 21st-century small town where life is slow and quiet, where citizens love their Starbucks and their hybrid cars, and where a grizzled old coot like Hermit Bob (Tom Waits) can steal a chicken and open fire on a sheriff but be let off with a warning because he’s not worth the hassle of a change in routine. They’re also big enough to have their own juvenile detention center, which maybe explains why the sheriff’s office has Bill Murray, Adam Driver, and Chloe Sevigny all on the payroll. A typical place like this, you’d think any one of them could handle it solo.
Then comes a day everything changes. Corporations have invented a (fictional, for now) new way to get rich quick off the Earth called “polar fracking”, which may or may not be harmless depending on how much malarkey you buy from authority figures. In what they insist is a totally unrelated and non-litigable coincidence, day and night start running the wrong hours, a purple halo begins to shimmer around the moon, and all the animals have gone berserk and fled town, either because something weird is about to happen or because animal wrangling is a major hassle and Jarmusch wanted them all off his set.
Also, suddenly, there are zombies. Well, maybe not suddenly. They’re still zombies and this is still Centerville. So, gradually, after a fashion, there are zombies. Gnawing, panic, heroism, and metaphors ensue in that order, because that’s how zombie movies roll.
Hey, look, it’s that one actor!: Beyond Ms. Sevigny, Kylo Ren, and Bill Murray as Sheriff Cliff Robertson (his name can be no accident), other townspeople include:
- Caleb Landry Jones (Get Out, Three Billboards), owner and possibly sole employee of the local gas station and geek merch shop, who should know from zombies
- Danny Glover as the earnest guy from the hardware store, always the Anti-Zombie HQ for your zombie survival needs
- Steve Buscemi as the Racist Who’ll Eventually Get His, complete with red “Keep America White Again” hat and a scene in which he complains because his coffee is “too black…too strong”
- Selena Gomez as one of three out-of-towners who show up at the wrong time, and who make sure to buy a CD copy of the movie’s original theme song, Sturgill Simpson’s “The Dead Don’t Die”
- Celebrity zombies such as Iggy Pop, Carol Kane, and Sturgill Simpson
- Rosie Perez as a TV reporter named Posie Juarez and RZA from the Wu-Tang Clan driving a van for a delivery company called Wu-PS
…it’s the little details like those that are your chief signposts The Dead Don’t Die has its own priorities and proclivities in mind, and far less interest in catering to the horror fan’s need for intense slaughterfest.
And lest we forget: Tilda Swinton, among the many veterans of Jarmusch’s past films, here playing an ethereal Scotswoman who’s recently shown up and become the town mortician. She naturally has an unique view on the dead, a peculiar demeanor folks don’t get, and a samurai sword she wields with no small amount of poise. And yet, much as the zombies aren’t here to gross you out, neither is Swinton here to perform Yuen Woo-Ping acrobatics.
Meaning or EXPLOSIONS? Once again the zombie uprising is the fault of humanity’s abuse of science, our quest for profit, and/or our failure to reckon with the potential consequences of our wanton misdeeds. Once again it is we, the Viewers at Home, who are the real walking dead. In a recent, fascinating Vulture interview, Jarmusch likened humanity to a group project that requires unity for survival, an increasingly rare quality in today’s ever-tribalizing world, and decided now was an appropriate time to revisit previously unheeded messages from George Romero and his spiritual descendants. The zombie subgenre is over fifty years old, but when you look back at the Morals of the Stories in its oldest works, few are the ones that come off quaint. Every problem then remains a problem somewhere today.
Jarmusch’s droll filmmaking rhythm adds a new layer to the metaphor, though. The zombies are as slow as ever. This time, so are the townspeople. Possessing all the reflexes of Grandpa Simpson, they’re slow to realize something’s wrong, slow to react to danger, and slow to do something. That is to say, drastically worse than your average zombie-flick victims. In Centerville where their motto is “A Real Nice Place” (Zappa homage, I presume?), nobody needs reflexes or skills to adapt. In short, they’re absolutely, fundamentally terrible at change. And so, one might argue, are billions of us, leaders as well as followers. We can keep insisting all is well and Life Will Find a Way, but we forfeit the right to act shocked and dismayed if Life finds a way to do without us.
When pressed for a ray of hope, one character offers, “The world is perfect. Appreciate the details.” That could be a philosophical acknowledgment of Mother Earth’s power to persist across the ages through countless calamities, with or without humans around. In the world of Centerville it may also be pure irony.
A few things are certain. More expensive cars will not save us from the end of the world. Those who might save us from ourselves may not necessarily be noble enough to stick around for a losing battle.
Other than Driver, who has an unfair advantage that’s too fun to spoil (suffice it to say Star Wars stardom has its perks), the only characters who display any keen grasp of the situation, who comprehend the polar fracking threat and its implications on a global scale, are three teens in that juvie center. While guards bark at them to follow the pointless rules of incarceration, the trio compare notes, reason through the evidence at hand, and look for ways to escape the fates that soon befall their captors. The battle isn’t theirs to fight as long as they remain underage and unarmed, but if they’re lucky they might just survive long enough to use what they know and make a difference. That big “if” is ultimately open-ended.
Nitpicking? I really wanted to see Swinton perform Yuen Woo-Ping acrobatics. Rats.
Anyone going in with typical expectations may not be as delighted as I was to be confounded at every turn. Nearly every major death is offscreen, because Jarmusch isn’t here to serve up “epic kills” or make savage splenectomies look cool. This disregard for horror’s “good parts” may especially be disappointing for those hoping to watch Buscemi’s cartoon racist die in lovingly visceral fashion.
By the same token, the often languorous banalities exchanged among the cast will remind some viewers of Manos: The Hands of Fate and frustrate discerning cineastes with no patience for that mode. Quite a few of us in the theater couldn’t stop giggling, but I’ve seen online commenters frothing at the apparent lack of Kevin Williamson bon mots. Granted, I’m not sure how well such glacial repartee would hold up on a second viewing. Possibly even better?
Cinema Sins followers who show up in every theater primed for anal-retentive microanalysis will surely run up their tallies once they notice the inconsistent performance of electronics. Once the moon and the atmosphere go all screwy, some phones lose their signals, while others see their batteries drained altogether. A few younger, phone-carrying zombies have lit screens but search in vain for hotspots. Automotive computers and decades-old PCs see no dire effects at all. If you detect any such fans sitting near you in the audience and furiously typing their “well actually” moments into Evernote, just shout “RANDOM SUNSPOTS!” at them and act smug, as if you’ve read the script.
(Sure, sometimes I nitpick too, if a thing annoys me when I wasn’t actively trying to be annoyed. Sometimes I find it’s a more entertaining challenge to go the “Marvel No-Prize” route. Instead of saying “Look, I found an error,” use your imagination to make up a reason that would explain why it’s actually not an error. It’s fun! Stan Lee used to reward this form of constructive cleverness. Hence the No-Prize.)
So what’s to like? I brake hard for satire, which lands The Dead Don’t Die and its send-up of apocalyptic fecklessness squarely in my bailiwick. I also love a well-honed parody, which it likewise manages with deft touches here and there as movie conventions occasionally get flipped over. It’s not meant to be a nonstop Airplane! laugh factory, but if you can tune in to Jarmusch’s wavelength, it’s an easygoing yet disturbing ride through a land of ever-mounting absurdities that would be doubly amusing if not for the undercurrent of genuine concern for humanity’s future woven into its seams.
How about those end credits? No, there’s no scene after The Dead Don’t Die end credits, but assistant director Atilla Yücer receives a bonus credit with extra gratitude from Jarmusch for services rendered above and beyond. Thankfully the end-credits music isn’t just Sturgill Simpson’s theme set on endless Replay, though if there has to be an End of the World, I’d rather have its jaunty guitar playing during humanity’s wake than some basso profundo dirge.