The Dead Don’t Die
Bill Murray, Adam Driver, Tilda Swinton, Chloe Sevigny, Tom Waits, Danny Glover, Steve Buscemi
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While the film slips between comedy and horror, it maintains an even tone throughout, with the director’s familiar ensemble cast delivering perfect performances…
Strangely, despite the late hour, the Sun still hasn’t set, as small town cops Chief Cliff Robertson (a deadpan Bill Murray) and Officer Ronnie Peterson (an equally poker-faced Adam Driver) return to the storefront police station in the small community of Centerville.
They’ve been in the woods trying to talk to Hermit Bob (Tom Waits) about a missing-presumed-stolen chicken. Wearing a red cap, sporting the logo ‘Keep America White Again’, farmer Frank Miller (Steve Buscemi) drinks coffee in the local diner where hardware store manager Hank (Danny Glover) keeps a wary eye on him. In the Centerville Juvenile Detention Center, three teenagers (Taliyah Whitaker, Jahi Di’Allo Winston, Maya Delmont) ponder the rumours that polar fracking has shifted the Earth off its axis. Strange “foreigner” Zelda Winston (Tilda Swinton) has taken over the local funeral home and practices with her katana. Meanwhile three hipsters from out of town arrive at the local motel…
This is small town USA, where everyone knows everyone else, and life crawls by slowly. But – as Hermit Bob observes – in the natural world things appear to be changing; the ants seem frantic, and weird mushrooms are sprouting from the soil. On television, newscasters talk of changes to animal behaviour, while overheard snippets from broadcasts feature pundits talking about the benefits of polar fracking. The Sun sets later than usual, and the Moon has a strange magenta luminescence. As Ronnie repeatedly observes: “this is going to end badly.”
The zombie film has slouched along a well-worn path for fifty years, the ‘modern’ genre’s political subtext established from George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead onwards, and in The Dead Don’t Die the political and environmental subtext is clear, and it is emphasised early on that we are living in strange times.
Like the best of Jarmusch’s films, The Dead Don’t Die allows protagonists and events to slowly unfold before the camera, emphasising the strange, stilted quirks of people and the worlds they inhabit. The Dead Don’t Die places the kind of minimal, quasi-outsider figures familiar from much of Jarmusch’s work (Mystery Train, Broken Flowers, Paterson), within the zombie genre with entertaining and sometimes surprising results. While the film slips between comedy and horror, it maintains an even tone throughout, with the director’s familiar ensemble cast delivering perfect performances – Murray, Driver and Swinton are all a joy to watch – as their world slowly collapses. [Minor spoilers] Steeped not just in zombie movies but in the processes and experiences of watching cinema, when, in true Brechtian style, the fourth wall is broken early in the film, it makes sense, because our own environmental apocalypse is always mediated through the media. Who among us hasn’t watched daily news of extinctions, climate change and environmental collapse and thought “this is going to end badly”? Similarly, some may argue, references to the genre and to cinema itself makes the film too knowing, but both the zombie genre and news reports of catastrophe are so familiar to audiences that they should be familiar to people living through the apocalypse too. Meanwhile, Hermit Bob’s occasional, insightful commentary counters the dry humour drawn from Cliff and Ronnie with a darker strand of apocalyptic thought which places the film outside the familiar realm of the classic zom-com – this is not the world of Fleischer’s Zombieland, we are not laughing at gross-out splatter or witty quips – it’s a Jim Jarmusch zombie movie.
While there is violence and gore, the real horror is on the seeming inevitability of the end times and the oblique knowledge that there appears to be nothing that can be done. If there’s any hope to be taken from the film, it lays in the observations of Waits’ hermit and the three teenage delinquents who (like the trio of prisoners in Jarmusch’s own Down By Law) somehow appear to escape the fate that no doubt awaits many around them.