To call The Dead Don’t Die the most mainstream film that Jim Jarmusch has ever made is accurate with reservations. Yes, this is a comedy about zombies whose all-star cast is near-exclusively comprised of meme superstars, many of whom happen to be frequent collaborators of the director. Through Jarmusch’s meditative eye, he has no particular interest in gory bravura. The citizens of Centerville are as slow as the lumbering undead that consume their prey’s stomachs, unconcerned by the lunar mishap that has threatened the earth’s axis. They’re observers, like Jarmusch himself, well aware of the actors playing them, pondering their inevitable, terrible fate while half-assing survival.
This is, undoubtedly, the best work of zombie fiction since Shaun of the Dead. Like Edgar Wright’s genre bender, The Dead Don’t Die is lived into a heightened reality where its characters’ understanding of the conflict is defined by George A. Romero’s physical and political characterization of the zombie. It’s not even a zombie movie per se; rather, it’s a film about small-town folk poorly handling an impending doom that just happens to be the form of zombies.
What The Dead Don’t Die means
The title carries a significant amount of weight in its meaning. The dead have come out of their graves. Dominating the soundtrack to the point of Adam Driver’s police officer declaring it a “theme song” is a self-titled ballad by Sturgill Simpson (a fact that we are reminded ad nauseum in one of many inspired meta gags). In a cast where almost everyone is oblivious, Jarmusch posits that, even with a pulse, we are dead to reality. It’s not just our egos, or being addicted to our smartphones. It’s a societal ignoramus like Farmer Miller (Steve Buscemi), whose “Keep America White Again” hat is so absurd that it likely exists.
Much of The Dead Don’t Die’s success rides on the shoulders of its cast. Bill Murray, Adam Driver, Tilda Swinton, Chloe Sevigny, Buscemi, Tom Waits, Danny Glover—it’s a heavy hitter cast on paper alone. Murray, Driver, and Swinton alone effectively comprise eight percent of Tumblr. Jarmusch also knows this and has a blast with joking about them. Murray’s police chief Cliff Robertson argues with Adam Driver’s reality-grounded Ronnie Peterson about improvising.
RZA appears as a delivery man for a service called “Wu-PS,” complete with a Wu-Tang Clan logo on the truck. Swinton plays a Scottish mortician who follows samurai code (a clear callback to Jarmusch’s Ghost Dog: Way of the Samurai) and wields a katana at zombies, which, I believe, is what much of Film Twitter wishes Tilda Swinton was in real life.
The final word on The Dead Don’t Die
The sum of the film is exemplary, but it’s the cadence of its parts that truly define it. The stone-faced delivery of the dialogue is critical to the message of cultural disconnect. The production design blends practical locations with subtle visual quirks. I had a blast seeing Murray reunited with Glover years after The Royal Tenenbaums, and even more delight at his brief time with Carol “The bitch hit me with a toaster!” Kane.
I’d have watched Caleb Landry Jones touch up his horror-memorabilia temple for an entire movie. Hell, if there was no zombie aspect and the whole film was about the cops dealing with the feud between Buscemi’s character and Tom Waits’ lion-like hermit, it would be just as great.
For the first time in his four-decade career, Jarmusch has delivered a film with commercial potential that does not limit his art-house appeal. In a field as unpretentious as horror-comedy, he is having the time of his life, sometimes knowing his cast better than they do. In The Dead Don’t Die, has given us the first zombie film for Drumpf-era cynicism. “This is going to end badly,” Driver insists throughout the film. As his hunch gains traction, we laugh ourselves to a disturbing crossroads: are we dead inside, and if so, does that mean we’re better off dead?