If you’ve ever seen a Jim Jarmusch film, it’s pretty easy to catch on to his style and cadence: the importance of music, a celebration of strangeness, and every character seems bored out of their minds no matter what’s going on around them. The Dead Don’t Die (2019) is no different, except this time there’s flesh eating zombies caused by corporate fracking. But don’t worry, Iggy Pop is still there.
The Dead Don’t Die takes place in the nondescript small town of Centerville, with a sign that lets us know its population consists of a measly 783 people. Despite Centerville’s small size, however, the town is filled to the brim with eccentric, idiosyncratic, Jarmuschian characters (I think it’s about time Jarmusch becomes an adjective among the ranks of David Lynch and Stanley Kubrick). These characters are played by some Jarmusch newcomers, including Adam Driver and Chloe Sevigny as police officers Ronnie Peterson and Minerva “Mindy Morrison.” There is also Caleb Landry Jones as the horror-obsessed gas-station-slash-convenience store owner Bobby Wiggins and Danny Glover as the local hardware store owner and frequent diner inhabitant. But there are also the Jim Jarmusch veterans. Tom Waits plays Hermit Bob, who serves as a narrator of sorts for the film and watches everyone from afar enshrouded in the forests of the town. Bill Murray is chief of police Cliff Robertson. Steve Buscemi is the token racist farmer who lives at the edge of town and hates everybody else. And last, but certainly not least, Tilda Swinton is the strange new Scottish mortician who is extremely skilled with a samurai sword. Of course, the film is also filled to the brim with famous zombies like RZA, Iggy Pop, Carol Kane, and Sturgill Simpson (who wrote the incredible theme song that is itself a running gag throughout the film).
Jim Jarmusch is a director that loves to play around with style and form. He actively questions what makes a film a film, and why do we seem to universally agree that there are certain rules we need to follow to make a good one. Jarmusch has always challenged these concepts, to varying degrees of success. The Dead Don’t Die is not his first foray into the horror genre — he also directed the vampiric melodrama Only Lovers Left Alive in 2013. But The Dead Don’t Die feels like a film that is attempting to be a cult classic in the present, rather than waiting the decades long wait period to properly enter the ranks of Dawn of the Dead, Return of the Living Dead, or even Shaun of the Dead. It knows the form well enough to make fun of it, to break the fourth wall, and to throw away the idea that a film must follow a traditional three-act structure. Jarmusch has always been great at breaking the rules, and this film is no exception. It is a fun, ridiculous ride that involves Iggy Pop as a coffee-obsessed zombie, and Bill Murray and Adam Driver’s incredible comedic chemistry.
The film has a comedic rarity, but Jarmusch staple — every character is the straight man. Almost every line in this film is delivered completely dead-pan and no one serves as the comic relief despite this film being a comedy. Still, it somehow never ceases to be funny when people react with absolutely no shock and awe at the most ridiculous things happening right in front of their eyes. The discovery that the trouble facing the town is zombies is met with such lack of surprise by Murray, Driver, and Swinton that you cannot help but laugh at their complete lack of awareness or fear. What is a horror movie without mindless screaming and terror? A Jim Jarmusch horror movie, of course.
The most glaring flaw in this film that I feel must be talked about, however, is Chloe Sevigny’s character, Mindy. When every other character in the film is dead-pan and on the nose, I can’t comprehend why Sevigny’s character was decidedly the exact opposite — always screaming or on the verge of tears, and making irrational decisions when everyone around kept a cool head — but not in any way that was funny or beneficial. The character was just as much a cop as Adam Driver or Bill Murray, and she even had quite a bit of agency in the beginning of the film. Why allow Tilda Swinton to be a badass sword wielding zombie-slayer, but then make your only other female lead play an unmotivated character with no personality trait except to be grating and cry any time something happened. It seemed Jarmusch wanted her to be the empathy link, the only person to see all the zombies as the people they used to be, which would have worked fine if there had been an arc. Bur she wasn’t, and it was by far the most frustrating thing about the entire film for me.
Underneath all of its humor and ridiculous fourth wall breaking, The Dead Don’t Die also hammers home a strong political message about global warming. The zombie outbreak is not caused by a disease, nor do we find its source in a top secret government lab. Instead, it’s the result of the Earth shifting on its axis due to excessive polar fracking. The zombies also gravitate to what they did while they were alive, just as they did in George Romero’s Dawn of the Dead (1978), and it makes a clear critique of American consumerism and selfishness. This message is clear from the beginning, in fact we’re basically beaten over the head with it, which is fine when it seems to play into the overall on the nose and to-the-point tone of the piece. But by the end of the film when we hear Tom Waits somberly tell us everything that is wrong with the world, as if we weren’t just being told that for the last hour and a half, I can’t help feeling condescended to.
At the risk of making an egregious pun, The Dead Don’t Die is a polarizing film at best. Do you like other Jim Jarmusch films? Do you also love ridiculous campy horror films along the lines of Return of the Living Dead and Repo Man? Does the idea of seeing Adam Driver rolling up in a convertible smart car make you burst out laughing just by picturing it in your head? Have you secretly always wanted to see Iggy Pop eat someone’s insides? Then you will at least garner some form of enjoyment out of this film. Although not as incredible as I had optimistically hoped earlier in the year when I claimed it as my most anticipated film of 2019, I still appreciate it in spite of its faults. I will always credit a director for making exactly the film he wanted to make, for knowing his craft well enough for there to be a clear vision that you can see played out on screen. Whether it is everyone’s cup of tea or not, or whether it’s even mine, I will always commend Jim Jarmusch for his creativity and unrelenting strangeness. I can see myself rewatching this once October rolls around, and in a few years I may eat my own words as it could slowly become the cult classic it clearly wanted to be from the start.