‘The Dead Don’t Die,’ the new film from Jim Jarmusch, is a strange zombie comedy with a relevant message conveyed in a completely strange manner
From the start of The Dead Don’t Die, it is easy to tell that something is quite off. In the hands of anyone other than legendary writer/director Jim Jarmusch, this would be a mess of a movie. But with Jim Jarmusch, it’s mostly just a disappointing, introspective oddity.
Jim Jarmusch has been working since the early 1980s, frequently making unique genre exercises. His anthologies like Night on Earth and Coffee and Cigarettes have told personal stories in unique circumstances, and even his more recent features have had a style all their own. Only Lovers Left Alive takes the vampire rockstar archetype in a new direction, as well as giving both Tilda Swinton and Tom Hiddleston some of their best roles to date. And his 2016 film Patterson was a launching pad for Adam Driver that turned him from “that guy from Girls” and “Kylo Ren” into an indie darling. These strange and emotive features take a premise that has been seen before and turns them into deceptively complex films about what it means to be a person on this planet in the 2000s, philosophical and absurd.
The philosophy and absurdity are taken to the extreme in The Dead Don’t Die, however, with a premise that seems simple but doesn’t get across what is happening under the surface of the film. An ensemble of oddballs in the town of “Centerville, U.S.A.” find themselves at the center of a zombie apocalypse, brought on by environmental disaster. When the police chief Cliff Robertson (Bill Murray) and his two deputies (Driver and Chloë Sevigny) find themselves attempting to survive, they begin to debate what it means to survive at the end of the world and how to cope with knowing the inevitable.
The film starts with a number of colorful characters that nevertheless feel like Jarmusch decided to give a good character to friends of his. Steve Buscemi, a frequent star of Jarmusch’s, plays Farmer Miller, a man who wears a red hat that reads “Keep America White Again” in white text. Tilda Swinton, delivering the best performance in the film, plays Zelda Winston, a samurai sword-wielding funeral director from Scotland. Eccentricities replace character development, from college hipster Selena Gomez to film-loving nerd Caleb Landry Jones to woodland survivalist/hermit Tom Waits. Each is simply drawn and barely a character beyond one trope, which simultaneously plays into the ways the zombie-center of the film while also making the film seem less entertaining as a result.
As jokes repeat to weakening effect and as only Murray and Driver get any real character development (the incomparable Ms. Sevigny suffers most with the worst character in the film), there are still a number of highlights that allow for the film to maintain momentum. When RZA shows up as an employee of “Wu-PS” you can’t help but laugh, and many of the jokes and gags in the film seem to be poking fun at both Jarmusch’s own style of filmmaking (references to coffee and cigarettes as vices) and the actors themselves (Rosie Perez playing Posie Juarez, for example). It is a film for insiders of the indie movie scene that Jarmusch helped create, starring members of that scene and the indie market of the 2010s as well. With four decades of filmmaking under his belt, Jarmusch is allowed to poke fun at himself however he may want.
If The Dead Don’t Die had less of a miserable ending, I think that most audiences would be able to get something out of this strange journey Jarmusch has built. The apocalypse according to Jarmusch comes with jaunty country music, and with characters blaming consumerism on the world’s problems. It is undistilled Jarmusch, and even to a fan like myself, I was left wanting so, so much more.