In Jim Jarmusch’s The Dead Don’t Die, the zombie apocalypse rustles yawningly but determinedly to fruition in Centerville, an anonymous American hamlet, population 738.
The omens, initially disparate and disconnected, begin to cohere into an existential collapse: Wild animals flee, and pets attack their owners. The sun is still out at 9 at night, and the next evening it’s pitch-black at 5 p.m. Watches stop, cellphones die, and car radios seem stuck on 11:11. Corpses twitch.
Furthermore, stereos seem to pick up only one song: “The Dead Don’t Die,” a brilliant outlaw-country throwback written for the movie by Sturgill Simpson, which repurposes a zombie outbreak in a kind of metaphysical poetry:
“The dead don’t die/anymore than you or I/they’re just ghosts inside a dream/of a life that we don’t own.
They walk around us all the time/never pay them any mind/to the silly lives we lead/or the reaping we’ve all sown.”
In step with the track’s poky, pedal-steel pacing, the movie ambles leisurely toward its inevitable carnage. Jarmusch being a maestro of Slow Cinema, nobody’s in a rush to commence Armageddon, neither the lurching zombies nor the weary townsfolk, and the film’s comic pleasures lie in its self-aware incrementalism.
In a note-perfect homage to the sleepy, rural settings of the zombie film’s ’70s heyday, Centerville is, in a word, unprepared for an uprising of the undead. This quasi-time warp is patrolled by Bill Murray’s past-his-expiration-date police chief, Cliff Robertson (note the character’s name, one of too many film references to count), and two officers — Adam Driver’s Ronald Peterson and Chloë Sevigny’s Mindy Morrison — for whom a typical Centerville emergency is a stolen chicken.
There’s a single-pump gas station that doubles as a horror-fan novelty shop operated by zombie-film expert Caleb Landry Jones. Eszter Balint manages the diner, the town’s only restaurant. There’s a crummy motel, run by Larry Fessenden, and Danny Glover operates the mom-and-pop hardware store. Steve Buscemi, sporting a “Make America White Again” hat, is the town’s backwoods farmer, Tilda Swinton its strange Scottish undertaker, Rosie Perez its lone news anchor/reporter, and so on.
The cast is an endless Rolodex of recurring faces from Jarmusch’s oeuvre. The Wu-Tang Clan’s RZA appears as the driver of a “Wu-PS” truck emblazoned with his rap collective’s insignia, and Tom Waits is the crazy old hermit who lives in the woods, the first to sense impending doom. Iggy Pop and Sara Driver are Centerville’s first stumbling cadavers, emerging from their graves with a hankering for … coffee.
There’s a rationale for the sudden reanimation of the dead, offered on staticky news bulletins: “Polar fracking,” deemed 100-percent safe by the federal government and the energy companies that support it, has begun to exhibit unintended consequences, upsetting the cycles of sun, moon and life as we know it. There’s also a Romeroesque sense of American materialism coming home to roost, with Waits’ off-the-grid philosopher and de facto narrator literalizing the subtext of Dawn of the Dead in a narcotized denouement.
But don’t mistake The Dead Don’t Die for a political film; it’s a movie about movies. It’s a $2.3 million goof, the best example of its director simply letting his hair down since 2003’s Coffee and Cigarettes. The locations are shopworn, the dialogue deliberately rote, the mise-en-scène littered with Easter eggs for horror fans and cineastes to discover. Murray and Driver routinely break the fourth wall, exhibiting the droll wit that is Jarmusch’s career-long signature.
In other words, The Dead Don’t Die is to the zombie film what Tim Burton’s Mars Attacks! was to the alien-invasion flick: a star-studded inside-baseball trifle. Burton’s nostalgic parody is viewed widely as a self-indulgent boondoggle, and reviews have generally been unkind to Jarmusch’s latest as well, which is not a surprise.
These critics are not entirely wrong; we’re far afield from Jarmusch’s last picture, the profound Paterson, which was my own No. 1 movie of 2016. But appreciate this tongue-in-undead-cheek comedy for what it is, and there’s every reason for The Dead Don’t Die to achieve the vaunted status of a midnight-movie classic.
THE DEAD DON’T DIE. Director: Jim Jarmusch; Cast: Bill Murray, Adam Driver, Chloë Sevigny, Steve Buscemi, Danny Glover, Tom Waits, Caleb Landry Jones, Rosie Perez, Selena Gomez, Iggy Pop, Sara Driver, RZA, Carol Kane, Austin Butler, Eszter Balint; Distributor: Focus Features; now showing