Writer-director Jim Jarmusch’s last film, 2016’s Paterson, arrived like a bowl of chicken soup for the soul. A quiet tale of a tender man, it provided a soothing distraction from the rise of Trump. Jarmusch’s new film, The Dead Don’t Die, tosses us back into the sociopolitical muck. Like the best zombie movies, it puts its bloody finger firmly on the pulse of society.
The film opens in the sleepy haven of Centerville. In a 1950s-era roadside diner, a frowning farmer (Steve Buscemi) fumes under a red hat that reads “Keep America White Again.” On the radio, we hear about the earth being pulled off its axis due to polar fracking. In-your-face bigotry, environmental catastrophe. Welcome to 2019!
The cherry on top of the shitpile is the surge of zombies descending upon the town. Centerville’s fate lies in the hands of Chief Cliff Robertson (Bill Murray) and officers Ronnie (Adam Driver) and Mindy (Chloë Sevigny). Oh yeah, there’s also a samurai sword-wielding mortician (Tilda Swinton).
Their largely blasé reaction to the undead humorously reflects how oversaturated we are with zombie lore. “You have to kill the head,” Ronnie says matter-of-factly.
America is so fucked at the moment that a zombie epidemic would probably come as no great surprise. As the cops cruise around, Jarmusch emphasizes how similar the town’s condition is to our current reality. The camera lingers on young zombies stumbling through the streets, their heads buried in cell phones. In the same way George A. Romero depicts zombies as slaves to consumerism in Dawn of the Dead, Jarmusch portrays them as distraction addicts. We’re all shambling through life, simultaneously steeping ourselves in the boiling pot of politics and trying to cool off in cyberspace. It’s the end of the world as we know it, and we’re meandering through the mire of Trump’s America.
The Dead Don’t Die reminds us why zombie films are so great. They’re not about otherworldly creatures — they’re about the worst parts of ourselves.
The film has a delightfully dry sense of humor, but it’s also a lovingly crafted tribute to the eerie beauty of the zombie genre. The grainy opening shot of a gravestone recalls 1968’s Night of the Living Dead. Another striking image shows pale, practically black-and-white zombies illuminated by the flashing lights of a police car. Like Romero’s classic zombie films, this entry in the genre has a gritty yet gorgeous aesthetic. Also like the best entries, it carries an emotional heft that leaves you rooting for the small band of survivors. Murray and Driver bring a world-weary quality to their characters while Sevigny’s escalating sense of shock and devastation re-sensitizes us to the madness of the zombie outbreak.
Although it’s somewhat meta in exploring our culture’s familiarity with the zombie genre, the film breaks the fourth wall in ways that unfortunately lower the emotional stakes near the end. Jarmusch’s earnest side is definitely preferable to his ironic hipster detachment.
In an entertainment age overrun with recycled material, it’s a pleasant surprise to see an effective, fresh take on familiar ground. Jarmusch finds new aspects to highlight in his trek through this territory. As one of the characters wisely says, “This world is perfect. Appreciate the details.”