The Dead Don’t Die | Jim Jarmusch | June 14, 2019
With The Dead Don’t Die, Jim Jarmusch reunites with many of his favorite past collaborators – as well as a few new ones – and takes a stab at the zombie genre with his familiar style that works both for and against the film. When we first meet Centerville police officers Cliff Robertson (Bill Murray) and Ronnie Peterson (Adam Driver), they have a goofy encounter with the strange local Hermit Bob (Tom Waits), which sets the tone for the sort of small-town ordeals that they, along with fellow officer Mindy Morrison (Chloë Sevigny), typically deal with on the job.
Their small town policing takes a dark turn when local hardware store owner Hank Thompson (Danny Glover) stumbles upon a grisly murder at the local diner that has them wondering what kind of wild animal could have committed such an atrocity, but Ronnie automatically throws the possibility of zombies into the mix (in fact, a zombie Iggy Pop is partly responsible). As it turns out, he’s correct. Due to the effects of polar fracking, the Earth has been knocked off its axis, resulting in the dead rising to wreak havoc on the living.
Jarmusch’s self-aware script has plenty of moments such as Driver’s character immediately knowing what’s up. Early on, we are treated to Sturgill Simpson’s rather catchy country theme song for the film that reappears several times, including in the squad car shared by Cliff and Ronnie. Cliff asks why the song seems so familiar and Ronnie remarks that’s because it’s the theme song. If that’s the sort of gag that makes you laugh, then Jarmusch’s movie will be right up your alley. If not, there’s a chance this isn’t the zombie film for you.
Along with his usually eccentric quirks and deadpan pace and style, Jarmusch works in plenty of modern-day commentaries, from Donald Trump’s America (with Steve Buscemi’s Farmer Miller character wearing a red MAGA-style hat) and the zombie-like nature of people today. Some are more obvious than others, with one more interesting moment coming when Mindy is distressed by the reality of the zombie situation and begs for her fellow officers to tell her that it will all be ok. Cliff does so but Ronnie questions this notion and knows that this thing will end about as well as advertised. With today’s testy political climate and air-sucking news cycle, it’s pretty clear what exactly Jarmusch has to say.
That’s not to say that The Dead Don’t Die doesn’t reveal in the fun aspects of this sort of genre film. There’s a wonderfully eccentric performance by Tilda Swinton as a Scottish morgue worker named Zelda Winston who carries around a samurai sword. She’s terrific as ever in the role, as are Murray and Driver leading the charge through Jarmusch’s deadpan dark humor-filled script, resulting in some desert dry laughs that are well-suited for the surrounding chaos. There’s also some fun appearances from the likes of Caleb Landry Jones, RZA, and Selena Gomez, as well as the previously mentioned Buscemi and Glover.
While not all of Jarmusch’s choices in The Dead Don’t Die land, it has some important topics on its mind and has fun with the sort of genre film that has now become oversaturated while finding a way to keep it fresh by both paying tribute and making it his own at the very same time. With something to say and a cast rounded out by so many great actors and friends of Jarmusch, The Dead Don’t Die was just the sort of quirky viewing that I needed this summer.