Those familiar with the work of American auteur Jim Jarmusch know what they’re headed into with his new film, The Dead Don’t Die, a chronicle of a small town that slowly becomes overrun with zombies. His apparent incursion into a new genre shouldn’t be surprising either, as he’s already left his mark on hitman and vampire films beforehand. What is truly surprising about this new film is simply how typical it is, at least for him. Audiences who are fans of zombie movies will probably leave theaters feeling frustrated, as Jarmusch hasn’t changed his style to enter the world of zombies. Rather he has turned the zombies around to suit his own style.
Cliff Robertson (Bill Murray) is the ho-hum, decent sheriff of Centreville, USA, aided by Ronnie Peterson (Adam Driver) and Mindy Morrison (Chloë Sevigny), his deputies. Nothing much happens other than the occasional livestock disappearance, usually at Farmer Miller’s (Steve Buscemi) place. One day, amidst news reports that fracking at the Earth’s poles is altering the planet’s rotation, strange effects start happening; electronics start fritzing, the sun won’t set (at least not by 8 pm), and zombies start coming out of the ground at the local cemetery. It’s up to the police department to handle the outbreak, with plenty of appearances by longtime Jarmusch collaborators and zany characters.
Tom Waits is an illustrious presence as Hermit Bob. Tilda Swinton is the Scottish-accented, samurai-sword-wielding Zelda Winston, prolonging her career-long attempt at playing every kind of being imaginable. Selena Gomez is one of a “hipster trio” staying at a motel mid-roadtrip, Danny Glover and Caleb Landry Jones work at a hardware store, the great Carol Kane and RZA play locals, and Iggy Pop is a key zombie presence.
There isn’t much going on, except that many of these characters have already watched zombie movies and thus know the rules: Don’t get bitten, aim for the head, and try to survive. Oh, and you can just call them zombies, not walkers, or anything else, really. It’s a curious narrative decision but it leaves everybody unsurprised and pretty much averse to thrills. Very little tension is felt throughout and the pacing is so languid that one might be forgiven for napping. The real problem seems to be in the scripting. Characters show up and then disappear for no reason, an entire plotline involving teens dissolves into thin air and at least one character is in a completely different flick. With a Sturgill Simpson track playing throughout, it seems like Jarmusch had some instant inspiration and invited all his friends for a weekend shoot where they’d have a good time and make things up on the spot.
It is an interesting film with great inside jokes and one prolonged discussion about the film itself (yes, within the film). It doesn’t really transcend the realm of niche aficionados, however, and makes any political points it has very heavily, as when one of the characters shows up in a red “Keep America White Again” hat. By relating this apocalypse to climate change, however, the director seems to have inverted the zombie metaphor. Instead of making a point about consumerism, it seems to imply that, since our planet is doomed and its end clock is ticking, we’re all sentenced to a living death anyway.