Patrick Preziosi on Jim Jarmusch’s ‘The Dead Don’t Die’ (2019)
Working with genre filmmaking is always rocky terrain; don’t conform to at least some of the basic conventions and produce a blasphemous film, or stick to the standard too much and be left with a rote piece of unwanted homage and nothing more. Jim Jarmusch, anything but a stranger to this high-wire balancing act — he exploited the Western for Dead Man (1995) and brought together Wu-Tang and The Sopranos in Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai (1999) — continues this genre-as-malleable streak with his foray into zombie territory, The Dead Don’t Die.
Being at the forefront of American independent cinema for as long he has (while remaining a beacon of “cool” as well), Jarmusch’s belated arrival to the travails of surviving the living dead is something of a head-scratcher. But because the early 2010’s zombie bubble has indeed burst, the remnants are ripe for reanimation by the likes of Jarmusch, whose films all feel rooted in some sort of artistic tradition, no matter how outré — think of the poetry of William Carlos Williams in Paterson (2016), or the spectre of Elvis in Mystery Train (1989).
Of course, The Dead Don’t Die — though lovingly done — situates itself in sendup territory, which allows for Jarmusch to double-down on the deadpan eccentricity and stacked ensemble casting. It begins when two bespeckled police officers of Centerville, PA (“A real nice place”), Cliff Robertson (Bill Murray) and Ronnie Peterson (Adam Driver) answer a call about a stolen chicken traced back to wily woodsman, Hermit Bob (Tom Waits). However, the three officers, rounded out by Mindy Morrison (Chloë Sevingy), begin to become only slightly more so preoccupied with a pall of strangeness that’s settled over the close-knit town; watches and phones stop working, and daylight maintains itself well past 8 pm.
As is revealed across different interactions amongst the townsfolk, whether it be a conversation between gas-station attendant Billy (Caleb Landry Jones) and WU-P-S delivery man Dean (RZA), or a trio of juvenile hall detainees, the world has fallen off its axis due to “polar fracking”. Politicians meet these claims with expected smugness, as weather patterns change, tectonic plates shift and even as, yes, the dead do begin to rise from their graves. The unwillingness to face the inevitable is more affecting when applied to the Centerville residents, who attribute ghoulish Iggy Pop and Sara Driver’s mauling of two diner employees to perhaps a wild animal, or several.
In a running joke throughout the film, Ronnie will repeatedly intone “this isn’t going to end well”, and even as more and more seemingly capable characters are brought into the fold, he’s mostly right, though not for lack of trying. Cliff and Ronnie prove respectively handy with a shotgun and machete, and Tilda Swinton’s Zelda, a hyper-verbose, alienish Scottish undertaker is also (maybe?) a trained samurai, performing numerous beheadings suddenly rendered in slow-motion. Billy, a film and comic aficionado, holes up with hardware store owner, Hank (Danny Glover), and although confident in his survival abilities, the two meet an expectedly grisly end.
For all the spilled guts and environmental collapse, The Dead Don’t Die is welcomingly funny, carrying itself with the kind of snowballing momentum of something like the Coen Brothers’ The Big Lebowski (1998) or Burn After Reading (2008). At the same time, however, Jarmusch can also be a little too eager to let the audience in on the joke, and though this doesn’t necessarily produce an underwritten script, it is glaringly uneven. The casting doesn’t feel like the great independent cinema unifier here as it did in Night On Earth (1991), but rather seems to simply play on the audience’s relationship with different figures of contemporary pop culture. Steve Buscemi’s “Keep America White Again” hat is a sly piece of visual humour, but the rest of his performance lives and dies on the fact that it’s someone like Buscemi playing the local, racist curmudgeon. Same goes for RZA’s WU-P-S man and Rosie Perez as a news anchor named… Posie Juarez.
The central trio of Murray, Driver and Sevigny build a wonderful rapport, and thankfully so, for they dominate the film’s runtime, and act as something like our heroes. Even if underwritten, the majority of the denizens of Centerville (as well as those passing through, such as Selena Gomez’s group of “hipsters” hailing from Cleveland) bank on their likability, which makes the ensuing apocalypse more harrowing than one might expect. When the undead make it into the detention centre, they’re seen only in silhouette through the opaque windows of the recreation room, and the skin-crawling sensation it provides rivals that of Jarmusch’s guiding light, George A. Romero, and is only exasperated by the fact it’s from the view of three very personable kids.
Given his track record and treatment of subjects, Jarmusch is arguably not a cynic, though The Dead Don’t Die at least suggests some newfound pessimism. However, when Billy asks Dean to drop some wisdom, he tells him to appreciate the details of the world. Jarmusch’s affinity for pillow shots, when paired with Frederick Elmes’ sumptuous roving cinematography, seems to take this adage to heart. The Dead Don’t Die’s zombies are attracted like moths to light to the activities they lovingly performed while alive; there’s some materialism takedown at play in the few that moan for Siri and WiFi, but things prove more melancholic for the children’s utterances for toys and snapple.
Within the film’s final fourth, Jarmusch hews extremely close to the genre conventions of post-Night of the Living Dead horror fare, engaging even in some fourth-wall-breaking acknowledgement of the characters’ ultimately bloody fate, and even a poorly placed (though perhaps intentionally so) deus ex machina for one character’s quick escape. Though the jokes at this point still have the ability to land — and they do — it’s hard not to pine for the straightforward zombie proceedings that are disarmingly interrupted with a deserved and unique poignancy.
The Dead Don’t Die is showing in cinemas now.