Very early on in The Dead Don’t Die, police officer Ronald “Ronnie” Peterson (Adam Driver, perfectly Adam Driver) succinctly dead pans “This is all gonna end badly.” Almost an hour and 45 minutes later he’s said the phrase so often and been such an accurate soothsayer that his boss, the normally mellow Chief Cliff Robertson (Bill Murray, lowest of low key) explodes in frustration when he says it one last time. It’s a rare moment in Jim Jarmusch’s end of the world opus that actually grabs the audience’s attention. That’s probably not a good thing when a majority of your movie revolves around the unexpected onset of zombies walking the earth. Then again, the noted cinematic auteur appears more interested in crafting a metaphor for the current state of American politics than having genuine fun with the undead.
While there are a multitude of storylines flowing through Jarmusch’s ensemble of familiar faces the conflict begins with the dire consequences of fracking at the planet’s north and south poles. This irresponsible action has caused the planet’s axis to dramatically shift and the consequences are felt even in the sleepy small town of Centerville. All of a sudden Ronnie and Cliff’s watches don’t work, the radio keeps going on the fritz and the sun is still shining much later than it should be. Oh, yeah, and the kooky but all-knowing Hermit Bob (Tom Waits, having fun) announces to no one but himself that the change in Earth’s axis has caused the moon to act screwy. Hence animals fleeing their owners for no apparent reason and those aforementioned zombies.
Ronnie and Cliff discover the coming plague of the undead after the murder of two beloved diner employees thanks to the reanimation of two local corpses (one played gleefully by Iggy Pop). The officers are somewhat level headed about the killings while their co-worker, Officer Zelda Watson (Chloë Sevigny, delivering the only real character arc in the movie) becomes increasingly distraught over the horror she’s witnessing. She wanted to believe the government’s assertion – being broadcast all over the media – that polar fracking was good for the economy and completely safe. The media lying to protect profits and corporations? Say it isn’t so Jim.
As the number of zombies roaming this town begins to increase a number of characters approach the threat from different perspectives. The shy and geeky Bobby (Caleb Landry Jones, memorable) teams up with hardware store owner Hank (Danny Glover, legend) to try and save themselves from an onslaught in the middle of town. Trump supporter Farmer Miller (Steve Buscemi, somehow still on brand) loves his “Keep America White” hat and can’t stop making false accusations while blurting out racist and xenophobic comments to anyone within earshot (you can imagine his reaction to zombies knocking at his door). And then there is Zelda (Tilda Swinton, blissfully on a different wave length), the town’s new coroner who is a master of the samurai sword yet somehow sports a Scottish accent and other strange abilities. Throw in a George Romero-inspired sportscar that comes to town filled with “hipsters” Zoe (Selena Gomez, positive vibes), Jack (Austin Butler) and Zach (Luka Sabbat) that is sort of pointless and another unnecessary plotline about three kids in a state-run juvenile detention facility and, in theory, there’s almost too much to explore.
Obviously, Jarmusch is no stranger to using genre to convey a narrative. He crafted his own interpretation of the Old West with Dead Man and played with Vampires in Only Lovers Left Alive. This time up he pretty much telegraphs the point of this picture early on and when his characters reference Romero it’s almost unintentionally funny because the homage has already been so obvious. This is socio-political ground that particular filmmaker covered back in 1968’s Night of the Living Dead and somehow with more nuance than Jarmusch who usually soars with quiet subtlety.
The Patterson, New Jersey native has spent decades crafting films in his own celebrated style. The plot can be secondary to the characters themselves. Nothing is ever rushed. Events and scenes will playout at an often slow and deliberate pace. And, most importantly, the humor will be dark and often deadpan (hence his continuing collaborations with Murray and Driver). But in the case of The Dead Don’t Die Jarmusch tests the limits of that aesthetic in a genre that often demands a bit more urgency. Granted, there are no real rules for a zombie movie. Jarmusch can play in the zombie sandbox in whatever manner he sees fit. And by the final act there’s a hint of the bats**t lunacy he could have embraced considering the film’s dire circumstances. But that’s never been Jarmusch’s cup of tea and he’s happy to let it all play at out at his own pace hoping the real-life horror sticks with you more than the events on screen.
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