Film Review | The Dead Don’t Die

Cult filmmaker Jim Jarmusch does not quite scale career-best heights with this smug, post-modern take on the zombie genre, but there’s more than enough charm to get it past the finish line in style

Bill Murray, Chloë Sevigny and Adam Driver face the suburban undead of Centreville in Jim Jarmusch’s latest comedy
Bill Murray, Chloë Sevigny and Adam Driver face the suburban undead of Centreville in Jim Jarmusch’s latest comedy

Vampires and zombies are destined to remain pop culture mainstays for generations to come. That is, unless the climate change crisis so astutely commented upon in writer-director Jim Jarmusch’s latest effort, The Dead Don’t Die, doesn’t alter our cultural landscape beyond recognition and forces us into more novel modes of folksy artistic expression.

Such world-weariness is certainly a recurring motif in Jarmusch’s take on the shambling undead genre, The Dead Don’t Die, in which the fictional American suburb of Centreville (“A Real Nice Place”) is suddenly assailed by its dead, a resurrection enabled by continued polar fracking which is leading the world to quite literally spin on its axis.

At the centre of the storm are police chief Cliff Robertson (Bill Murray) and his officers Ronald ‘Ronnie’ Peterson (Adam Driver) and Minerva ‘Mindy’ Morrison (Chloë Sevigny), who discover that something is not quite right after they get a call from the local racist farmer Miller (Steve Buscemi, sporting a ‘Keep America White Again’ cap) and notice that it’s still daylight after 8pm.

Soon, even mobile phones stop working, and when the local diner is marked by two disemboweled corpses, officer Peterson comes to the only plausible interpretation of the matter: “I’m thinkin’ zombies!”.

Yes, Jarmusch is out to have some fun at the zombie genre’s expense, and the all-star cast (Iggy Pop is happy to gurn wordlessly along as a member of the freshly undead) are keen to play along. Among the Jarmusch regular one finds Tilda Swinton, having even more of a blast than usual as Centerville’s most curious new arrival: a Scottish ninja undertaker. This kind of absurd character-collage oddly matches the box-ticking pile-up of fantasy tropes that B-movies favour, and with his ragged spoof Jarmusch actually manages to transmit some of that same mad energy, albeit an entirely ironic, ‘hipster’ lens (hipster irony is also spoofed, by the way).

Jarmusch’s utter disregard for standard Hollywood story structure also means that his shifts in tone and narrative tempo don’t feel like unwelcome irruptions; they are par for the course. Which makes room for some legitimately poignant moments to slip in. There is an earnest appeal towards climate change awareness, through which Jarmusch is quick to remind us of how horror and other ‘subaltern’ genres were always handy vehicles to explore contemporary mores, whether this was deliberate on the filmmakers’ part or discovered after the fact by keen-eyed critics and cultural historians.

But the spiritual dimension of Jarmusch’s work is also in evidence here – a fixture of the 70s, the director basks in the afterglow of the embers left over by the buddha-courting flower power generation – and it is largely delivered through another Jarmusch regular, Bill Murray.

He’s the frayed zen master here, and where that isn’t played for exasperated laughs, it allows for pathos, as when the beleaguered police chief spots resurrected children amidst the zombie hordes assailing Centreville.

Yes, it’s certainly a minor Jarmusch on every count, even when compared to the auteur’s most recent efforts. Adam Driver’s presence evokes an unwelcome comparison to Paterson (2016), a beautiful and quietly heartfelt love letter to the mundane churn of life, one that eschews overbearing self-referentiality in favour of indulging in what the Caleb Landry Jones character is told by Wu-Tang Clan’s RZA in the picture under consideration: “The world is perfect. Appreciate the details”. Neither is it the best of the director’s stabs at the horror genre, with Tilda Swinton-starring Only Lovers Left Alive (2013) offering a more keenly understood take on the vampire genre and what makes it tick.

Still, in its devil-may-care collage of references, held together by deadpan jokes skewed towards the deliberately lame and quirky-but-flat characters awaiting to be summarily dispatched only to be resurrected as hollow, shambling versions of themselves, the feel of The Dead Don’t Die ends up being an even more truthful tribute to its pulpy forebears than some its slicker contemporary counterparts.

Not for Jarmusch the high-budget, melodramatic trappings of The Walking Dead, but neither is he interested in the kind of hi-octane ‘zom-com’ spoof of the kind popularised by Shaun of the Dead (2004). Instead, Jarmusch delivers the kind of scruffy pick-and-mix flick whose punky spirit is far more in line – aesthetically, culturally, economically – with the George Romero originals that have defined the zombie genre throughout history and which are, of course, explicitly referenced over and over again, popping up to reminds us that what we’re watching is for the most part a repetition. A zombie gag, but at least we’re all in on the joke.

The verdict

Smug to a fault and propping itself up on deadpan jokes that are droll even by the usual Jim Jarmusch standards, The Dead Don’t Die still manages to pull off a charming twist on the over-tired zombie genre, working in an astute climate change allegory into the proceedings and obliquely re-creating the gritty, grimy and offbeat feel of a genuine midnight movie.

The Dead Don’t Die will be screening at Spazju Kreattiv Cinema tonight and August 15, 17 and 22 at 8.30pm