Jim Jarmusch’s The Dead Don’t Die runs far deeper than just a zombie comedy
“The dead just don’t wanna die today,” growls Hermit Bob (Tom Waits, of course) near the end of Jim Jarmusch’s deadpan zombie doodle The Dead Don’t Die. The movie may seem like lightweight, lesser Jarmusch, but I have a feeling it’ll grow in stature in memory. Like George A. Romero before him, Jarmusch uses zombies as a Trojan horse for whatever ideas he has about society. His film feels like a riff on Romero’s work — a film-nerd character even wears a Night of the Living Dead pin. Well, Jarmusch and Edgar Wright know that if you’re working in the genre Romero invented, you show him due respect. The Dead Don’t Die has its wiseass downtown moments, but there’s also something morosely creepy about it, and Jarmusch isn’t larking around at Romero’s expense. Whatever Jarmusch is saying here, he’s as serious about it as Romero was.
Hermit Bob lurks in the woods of Centerville, a rural nowheresville impacted, like the rest of the world, by weird phenomena apparently caused by our planet going off its axis due to excess fracking. We meet a handful of townspeople, who all tuck little idiosyncrasies in their shirt pockets. Well, “little” except for Zelda Winston, a mortician who practices tirelessly with a samurai sword and who seems to hail from far away — like, way far away. Obviously, Zelda is played by Tilda Swinton, and her character name is one of several in the movie that function as scrambled variations on, or slight deviations from, either an actor’s name or the name of a past character he or she has played. So we have a news anchor named Posie Juarez played by Rosie Perez, and Adam Driver, who starred in Jarmusch’s previous film Paterson, plays a cop named Peterson.
The movie is a little long on meta fancies like this and a couple of fourth-wall-breaking scenes between Peterson and his older cop partner Cliff Robertson (Bill Murray). But generally Jarmusch holds to a melancholic realism (albeit a Jarmusch realism). Out in the woods, Hermit Bob happens across a paperback of Moby Dick, and twice he offers a partial quote of “For every one knows that this earthly air, whether ashore or afloat, is terribly infected with the nameless miseries of the numberless mortals who have died exhaling it.” Jarmusch possibly might have preferred The Nameless Miseries of the Numberless Mortals as a title, but I imagine it would’ve been a challenge for Sturgill Simpson to write the theme song around that. (In this universe, everyone has heard Simpson and has an opinion about his music; this is a reality where Sturgill Simpson exists, but other real-life musicians like Iggy Pop, Selena Gomez, and RZA — driving a “Wu-PS” truck, ha-ha — appear playing characters.)
Anyway, that Melville quote seems to suggest we are sickened by breathing air filled with psychic toxins (sounds like Marianne Williamson after a dank bowl). This notion of a plague spreading like a mood across a community — peopled by drones who come back from the dead croaking the one word that defines them as consumers — is more poetic than the usual zombie epidemic, and perhaps shares more DNA with the excellent unconventional zombie flick Pontypool than with Romero. Driver and Murray put on their best deadpans, though not everyone is so affectless; consider the angry Trumpster farmer (Steve Buscemi) or the aghast cop (Chloë Sevigny) or the abashed geek (Caleb Landry Jones) or the gloomy mechanic (Danny Glover). The Dead Don’t Die doesn’t seem like a reverie on mortality like Jarmusch’s Dead Man; it has more to do with bad vibes, bad feelings, that threaten to splinter human connection.
Again like Romero, Jarmusch creates a circumstance in which the dead return — a miraculous event, or a perversion of Lazarus — only to be locked into their one favorite thing, like phones or coffee or Chardonnay. The dead become automatons, and the living, reduced to retreat and defense, become little better. Both groups are single-minded to the point of blindness to their surroundings. Thus “zombie comedy” doesn’t fit very well on The Dead Don’t Die; neither does “horror film.” Sometimes its sense of creeping global wrongness evokes Wim Wenders’ Until the End of the World; sometimes it seems like Jarmusch’s typically elliptical response to current events. It does manage to be funny here and there, but I don’t think that’s the effect Jarmusch is after, or not the only effect. It’s beautiful almost in spite of itself; cinematographer Frederick Elmes finds the lushness in gas stations and diners and cemetery trees backlit by the moon.