At this point, zombies are the baseline currency for horror. Since the renaissance (or rerotting) of the undead as a film icon in the early 2000s, they’ve become as ubiquitous as slashers in the ’80s or Christopher Lee in the ’60s. The Walking Dead is approaching 10 years on the air. Zombies are played out. Which is why it seems especially weird for any filmmaker to choose 2019 as the year for their George A. Romero tribute; even weirder that the filmmaker is indie icon Jim Jarmusch. As we see, to our delight, with The Dead Don’t Die, nobody is more keenly aware of that absurdity than Jarmusch himself.
After nearly a 40-year career as a director and 13 previous features under his belt, Jarmusch is as much of an institution for a certain kind of movie as Quentin Tarantino or the Coen Brothers, while remaining largely on the fringes. He has embraced his independent brand and offered up deadpan, underplayed, largely conversation-fueled movies. Unmoored by genre conventions, Jarmusch has tackled romantic comedy, gangster flick, western, vampire drama, and hitman thriller. Each finds its characters thinking about their place in the universe, or desperate to leave it. The Dead Don’t Die follows suit, delivering the most Jim Jarmuschy movie possible, fully cognizant of what “normally” happens in zombie movies, Jim Jarmusch movies, and just movies in general. The same is true for a lot of his characters, too.
There’s an odd tone to the movie from the start. The world of the film is off its axis, literally. Day and night come at random times, animals run away at a record pace, and the dead, as you might expect, don’t die. Or, they don’t stay dead, more accurately. In a sleepy Pennsylvania town, citizens come to terms with a growing zombie threat, some much better equipped than others. Bill Murray plays the town’s sheriff Cliff while Adam Driver and Chloe Sevigny play his deputies, Ronnie and Mindy. They’re the only thing standing in between Centerville and certain devourment. So they’re screwed, basically.
The movie’s littered with familiar faces playing suitably quirky characters; Steve Buscemi is vile racist cattle farmer; Danny Glover is a kindhearted hardware store owner; Caleb Landry Jones is a pop culture-obsessed gas station attendant; Selena Gomez is one of a trio of road-tripping college kids; RZA is a wise deliveryman (with the best company name in history); Tom Waits is a crusty hermit; and Tilda Swinton plays the town’s Scottish bushido samurai mortician. Like many of Jarmusch’s most beloved films, this one splits its characters up, offering vignettes rather than a connected story. Without the zombie parts, this would still be a fun comedy about weird, small town America.
But zombie parts are aplenty, and Jarmusch, as ever, downplays the severity of any one attack while heightening the overall sense that this is indeed the end of the world. In a lot of zombie movies, even when the worst starts to happen, there’s still a sense that somewhere, some semblance of society could survive. Through nothing more than tone and circumstance–absurdities, meta moments, and just general weirdness–it feels like the literal end of days. The zombie plague is less the point of the movie and more a recognizable embodiment of the rot on civilization. Jarmusch presents a cynicism housed in deadpan humor that makes the viewer feel ill at ease, but it strengthens the impact of the film.
As one of the movie’s taglines says, “the road to survival could be a dead end.” It feels more and more that the real world might succumb to some kind of doomsday, even if it’s just society eating itself. So if the rapture is to happen, why not go out with a smile? Or at least a muted smirk. The Dead Don’t Die is a supremely entertaining movie, so long as you don’t expect a lot of scares or typical zombie movie action. This isn’t that kind of movie. But somehow it feels Jim Jarmusch captured George A. Romero’s point better than just about anyone.
4 out of 5