The Dead Don’t Die
Directed by Jim Jarmusch
Starring: Bill Murray, Adam Driver, Tom Waits, Chloë Sevigny
Rated R for zombie violence/gore and for language
1 hr., 44 mins.
Watching films by Jim Jarmusch is an acquired taste, and not just because they tend to be offbeat. They’re disorienting. Actors don’t feel like actors. A script is just words on paper. It’s the film that counts. The images. The impact.
I first encountered him in 1984 with the film Stranger Than Paradise. I’ve been a fan ever since. And for 35 years, I’ve kept coming back. Any of you remember Ripley’s Believe It or Not? Yeah, that kind of weirdness.
So, when I try to explain his latest film, The Dead Don’t Die, you must understand that we’re dealing with a different sort of zombie movie here. This isn’t just Jarmusch trying to be funny. This is Jarmusch stringing us along in his usual deadpan fashion about what he assumes will be the final fate of the world. As Officer Ronnie Peterson (Adam Driver) repeats continuously: “This isn’t going to end well.” Turns out, he’s right.
Centerville, Pennsylvania, is a sleepy town in the countryside. As the movie opens, Chief Cliff Robertson (Bill Murray) and Officer Peterson are investigating the disappearance of chickens off the ranch of crotchety farmer Frank Miller (Steve Buscemi). The suspect? Raggedy old Hermit Bob (Tom Waits), who wanders the woods foraging and spying on his neighbors.
Things seem to be weird all around town. It’s still daylight after 8:00 p.m. Watches and cell phones have stopped working. Polar fracking has changed the axis of the world. The full moon looks . . . uh . . . frizzy.
Local TV broadcaster Posie Juarez (Rosie Perez) reports about the disappearance of local pets. Miller notices he’s also missing his cows. Meantime, the new Scottish samurai undertaker, Zelda Winston (Tilda Swinton), is hoping to retrieve the corpse of local drunk Mallory O’Brien (Carol Kane), who has been interred in a cell at the local sheriff’s station.
Then it happens. Two corpses rise from the dead — one man (Iggy Pop) and one woman (Sara Driver). Invading the local diner late at night, presumably because they have a fond memory of coffee, they end up munching on the waitresses, Fern (Eszter Balint) and Stella (Maya Delmont). And we’re off to the races.
There are a myriad of inside jokes in this film. There’s a running dialogue about the movie’s theme song, “The Dead Don’t Die,” by country artist Sturgill Simpson. There’s a special reference to director George Romero’s car and a scene that I think comes very close to the zombie invasion in Romero’s Night of the Living Dead. There’s also a lovely discussion between Peterson and Robertson about who received what script scenes from Jarmusch. Robertson is very annoyed with the director.
Top it off with Hermit Bob, who seems to enjoy spying on his neighbors with his high-priced binoculars and providing the audience with a running commentary about the end of the world.
It’s as close to shtick as Jarmusch will ever come. And with his old partner Bill Murray and lots of his previous cast providing stand-in help, the director seems to be having a wonderful time.
That is, until the ending, in which he relishes taking a hatchet to our assumptions and leaving open the question: Which zombies (in the movie or the audience) really deserve to die?
If you’re squeamish, don’t like zombie movies, or have had bad experiences with Jarmusch films in the past, this is not the one for you. But if you enjoy underground humor, are easily amused, or just love to be bewildered (I admit partiality to all three), then you’ll take pleasure in The Dead Don’t Die. This is dark humor. Really dark.
As for director Jim Jarmusch, I wonder if he’s suggesting that it’s possible that the whole world might someday be overrun with zombies, bringing to a happy and well-deserved end our steaming pile of human existence? I told you: dark.