The Dead Don’t Die is certainly a Jim Jarmusch film. In his career, he’s brought his own idiosyncratic approach to quiet dramas, mafia films and Westerns. It never quite approaches parody or deconstruction; Jarmusch is interested in and a fan of the tropes of genres, and he sees how they can be used to examine the human condition and high-minded concepts, from the men born in the wrong time of Ghost Dog: Way of the Samurai who cling to old ideals, to the quiet beauty of a steady, happy life in Patterson. And with The Dead Don’t Die, Jarmusch puts his touch on the zombie film.
There are all sorts of familiar elements of Jarmusch’s repertoire — laid-back pacing, static shots of small-town quiet life, Bill Murray — but this time he is equally at his most comedic and his angriest. The plot is deceptively simple: Polar fracking is throwing the earth off its axis, causing the dead to rise (seriously), and in the small town of Centerville, police chief Cliff Robertson (Bill Murray), along with his deputies Ronnie (Adam Driver) and Mindy (Chloe Sevigny), and a few genre-savvy townspeople, must deal with the threat. As night eventually falls and the dead rise, Cliff and company are forced to step up and try their best to survive. But rather than be an action-packed gore fest, Jarmusch digs into the odd community of Centerville, letting the unusualness of the events seep into and unsettle the cast. It’s telling that for the first half of its run, The Dead Don’t Die mostly eschews a score. SQURL’s music only really comes in on the backhalf, when things are much more dire.
The Dead Don’t Die is not satirical enough to be called a parody, and not meanspirited or dismissive to be a deconstruction. There are laughs, sure– from a few clever cameos to characters’ own unique quirks, plus some very creative zombie kills– and there are some unexpected metatextual moments. It all comes together in a style that probably won’t be for everyone, but if it clicks, it works the whole run time. The humor is pretty consistent, but Jarmusch and his crew seem disinterested in subverting the genre.
Instead, one of the more surprising parts of the movie is its idealism. Simple acts of kindness are rewarded. The worse things get, and the more fatalistic Ronnie gets, he and Cliff carry on, because it’s the right thing to do to help people, and they might as well risk going down trying. When things turn bad, Ronnie convinces Cliff to still help a disliked member of the town. Even when Jarmusch changes the stakes in the final action set piece, there’s a noble quality to the heroes’ actions. The Dead Don’t Die is littered with moments celebrating empathy and the natural beauty of the earth. When a trio of big city travelers led by Selena Gomez — exactly the kind of model-type young adult stars who would be the vapid protagonists of a standard gore-as-focus horror film — arrive in Centerville, their vanity, callousness and mockery of others feels all the more cruel in the context of everyone else’s acceptance. As WuPS deliverman Dean (RZA) says early on when pressed for some wisdom, the world is perfect, appreciate the details.
The Dead Don’t Die is also Jarmusch’s most outright political film. It takes only one look at the red hat Farmer Miller (Steve Buscemi, expertly irritated) wears to see where Jarmusch’s views lie, and reoccurring newscasts offer a blistering environmentalist viewpoint. But perhaps the most striking, and poignant, commentary is its depiction of Centerville’s juvenile detention center (which a town of less than 800 people has for reasons unstated) where the kids, all people of color, clearly see the implications of what’s happening, but are powerless thanks to the burly, bald white guards lording over them. One of those imprisoned kids is named Geronimo, as if to drive the point home further. It’s not an outright, blatant response to the Trump administration, but it’s hard to imagine this film get made any time prior to the last two years. There’s the almost prerequisite commentary on zombies-as-materialism trope, but even then Jarmusch puts his own spin on it.
That’s not to say the movie is all political commentary and humanistic philosophy. The cast is clearly having a ball, no more so than Tilda Swinton as a katana-wielding Scottish Buddhist mortician who’s new in town. When action does come into play, it’s fun. And Jarmusch manages to stay true to many of the conventions of the zombie film, with attacks to the undead head galore, but puts his own spin on things. Sure, the zombies talk, but only to state what they desire most (coffee, Chardonnay). Despite the freely dispensed blood from living victims, zombies seem to be full only of dust that billows after each wound. And behind the scenes, Frederick Elmes keeps a leisurely framing to most events, making everything feel like a slice-of-life film about Centerville, save for some sequences when Jarmusch steps away from Cliff and the protagonists to show the zombies’ mayhem, with sped-up tracking shots and eery pans.
It might not be for everyone — some critics have said the meta elements make this a “hipster zombie film,” which is weird considering the film’s outright comments on hipsters — but it’s clear that Jarmusch isn’t phoning it in, or losing sight of his deeper themes in The Dead Don’t Die. And on a visceral level, a samurai-sword-wielding Tilda Swinton is always entertaining.