The Dead Don’t Die, directed by Jim Jarmusch, is easily the auteur filmmaker’s most delightfully-twisted release yet. It is clear within this film that Jarmusch doesn’t think much of zombie films, and maybe horror films in general. To those unfamiliar with the director’s past work, it might be easy to mistake his winking parody of the zombie/horror genre as simply bad filmmaking. Somehow, Jarmusch points out the banality of horror tropes to a degree where they seem broken down to an absurd level. The Dead Don’t Die might not have many laugh-out-loud moments, but its playful-yet-deadpan energy and sneaky satire make it one of the most interesting films that Jarmusch has put out.
The small town of Centerville is more off-center than usual. Wristwatches and cell phones have stopped working. The sun is setting at strange hours. News reports say that “polar fracking” has tilted the Earth off its axis. Citizens are found dead, eviscerated in the local diner. Officer Ronnie Peterson (Adam Driver) is “thinkin’ it’s zombies.” It is, in fact, the dead rising from the grave. Peterson and his partner, Chief Cliff Robertson (Bill Murray), set out to protect their sleepy town from these ghouls who crave creature comforts from their past lives as much as, if not more than, human flesh.
It would be easy to write off The Dead Don’t Die as an attempt at a quirky horror-comedy. The horror elements are never actually frightening. There are only a handful of zombie attacks, and there is no tension or suspense to speak of. The comedy doesn’t always quite work either. One of the eye-roll-inducing gags involves Rosie Perez playing a newscaster named Posie Juarez, an obvious retooling of her own name. The surprising and highly-entertaining aspect of The Dead Don’t Die is that it isn’t like the standard horror-comedies we’ve seen thus far. In a lot of ways, it is a carefully orchestrated attack on the horror genre that may infuriate viewers who think it is just being sloppy, or quirky for the sake of quirk. However, Jarmusch is far too intelligent of a director to take his first horror film into predictable directions.
Right from the first act, The Dead Don’t Die works to make sure the viewer doesn’t take it seriously. Farmer Frank Miller (Steve Buscemi) is introduced wearing a red hat that says “Make American White Again.” We meet Hermit Bob (Tom Waits), a grizzled vagrant who has an encyclopedic knowledge of nature. Then there is Bobby Wiggins (Caleb Landry Jones), the nerdy gas station clerk whose shop is decorated with posters from The Thing and Videodrome, as if it were a dorm room of a film student who watches horror films more often than he writes them. He is soon visited by Dean (RZA of Wu-Tang Clan), the delivery driver for “WuPS.” On paper, these characterizations seem trite, obvious, and unfunny. Jarmusch knows this, though. He has shown with films like Down by Law, Mystery Train, and Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai a keen understanding of awkward comedy. The Dead Don’t Die arguably finds the genre predictable and zombies not particularly fascinating. One could almost imagine Jarmusch had been forced into making a horror film. Ever the cunning film student, he turns in his project, glancing to see if audiences are picking up on the joke, but too cool to care one way or another.
The actual zombies in The Dead Don’t Die seem to be purposefully uninteresting. The first zombies we meet are played by Jarmusch’s wife, Sara Driver, and Jarmusch’s idol, Iggy Pop. Driver and Pop descend on two hapless victims, biting necks and pulling out intestines. The two ghouls are distracted from their meal by nearby pots of coffee, moaning “Coffee!” as if it were “Brains!” A victim lays on the floor twitching and groaning in an altogether disturbing fashion. During my first watch, this seemed tonally uneven, asking us to laugh after losing characters we had grown to like. On the second watch, the film’s disinterest in taking the deaths of characters seriously in the pursuit of a cheap laugh further connects to Jarmusch’s upending of the genre. Horror films routinely kill off characters in increasingly more elaborate ways to entertain audiences. We aren’t meant to connect to most of these characters, as they are primarily just there to show the inventiveness of the special effects teams. Here, Jarmusch chooses to leave the victims writhing in pain while Iggy Pop demonstrates his literally undying love of coffee. It is a darkly hilarious moment where the film almost tempts you to laugh instead of focusing on the disturbing violence on-screen.
The Dead Don’t Die is packed with great actors delivering subtle hilarity. This is one of Bill Murray’s best comedic performances that we’ve seen in quite some time. Murray plays Chief Robertson without an ounce of ego. He might be a little cold to those around him, but he has a delicateness to his demeanor that is more pleasant than expected. Tilda Swinton is delightful in a role that could have become an utter mess. She plays Zelda Winston (yet another instance of a character’s name being similar to the actress’s own), a Scottish funeral home director who enjoys giving cadavers 80s-inspired makeup and wielding a samurai sword when the dead come knocking. The role sounds like a Mad Libs-style creation meant to give indie film fans the vapors. While it is entertaining to see Swinton’s lightning-quick slicing of revenants, it is much more enjoyable to hear her awkwardly talk with her neighbors. She only refers to people by their full name and asks personal questions because she is “accumulating local information.” Swinton takes a potentially mishandled character and makes her shine.
It is going to be tough for The Dead Don’t Die to find an audience. It isn’t laugh-out-loud funny or horrific enough to click with mainstream audiences. Furthermore, it is too uncharacteristically goofy for many Jarmusch fans to connect with it. Regardless, The Dead Don’t Die is a sly and brilliant film that will hopefully grow in reputation in the years to come.