The Dead Don't Die (2019, directed by Jim Jarmusch. U.S.A., in English, Color, 104 minutes) Auteur Jim Jarmusch has devoted an almost 40-year feature film career to the dynamics and personalities of human interaction, giving audiences something more substantial than the ordinary box office fare. A slew of people have graced the screen from myriad backgrounds set anywhere from the old West to Nashville. Jarmusch’s last film, “Paterson,” is a remarkable achievement of mindfulness and the connections we have with the community around us.
“The Dead Don’t Die” is not in the same vein of “Paterson,” or even Jarmusch’s vampire romance before that, “Only Lovers Let Alive,” but leave it to him to take the zombie subgenre of horror films and to attempt something different.
Films about zombies have evolved from a serious indictment about the thought of people being “un-dead” and attacking us (watch the original “The Night of the Living Dead” which is referenced in “The Dead Don’t Die”) to a campy game about killing them for a game of comedic sport (“Zombieland”) and just about everything in between. Their role in motion pictures can be seen as an allegory of social injustice to horrific, hell-bent, blood thirsty beasts engulfing the world at some point of a regional apocalypse. (Danny Boyle’s “28 Days Later” can appropriately be attributed for vigorously revamping interest in zombies.)
Jarmusch’s effort at the subgenre is a bit of a dramedy satire, poking fun at zombies, movies and small town country life and also focusing on the townspeople who have to work together to survive, of course. Like Romero’s groundbreaking film, “The Dead Don’t Die”, too, takes place in a Western Pennsylvania town. But unlike the very miniscule cast of “Night of the Living Dead”, Jarmusch paints his town with the colorful personalities of three cops (Bill Murray, Adam Driver and Chloë Sevigny), a reclusive wilderman (Tom Waits), a peculiar, samurai sword-wielding undertaker (Tilda Swinton), a film buff (Caleb Landry Jones), the crazy racist and undeniable Trump supporter (Steve Buscemi), and so many more. This all-star cast of Jarmusch regulars and new faces converge in a world that is all too identifiable with its political over/undertones and the familiar mannerisms we see in towns big and small.
Usually, some sort of hazardous situation gives rise to zombies, but in this case it is implied that fracking on the north pole has caused the earth’s orbit and rotation to get out of whack, causing days where the sun sets too late, or, even, too early. This, for some reason,which isn’t terribly important anyway, causes two undead people to rise from their graves and they start to feast, and more undead begin to leave their graves... and the police station holding cell. Transpiring is a fourth wall-breaking adventure into keeping town safe from zombies, even though one character knows for certain that it will not end well (they say Jarmusch gave him the end of the script so he knows the final outcome).
But whether you believe all of the characters will “make it” to the end or not is of no significance to the film. Yes, we cheer on the main protagonists to see the new dawn and spared of zombie bites: isn’t that why people have watched “The Walking Dead” for forever? Jarmusch can’t stray too far from his ability to delve into the relationships among people, even in a film like this that lies somewhere on the zombie film spectrum between “Shaun of the Dead” and “Night of the Living Dead.” The laughs usually come at the expense of the townfolk’s naiveté and their ignorance to accept an aberrant situation as a zombie invasion. At one point a motel owner thinks a group of college-aged kids from Ohio are a group of free-wheeling, big city hipsters: they really aren’t.
Some of the characters are humorously self-aware of their surroundings as the characters in “Shaun of the Dead” are. Unlike "Shaun", this film isn’t interested in being a horror film, or anything too gory to be deemed horrific. It follows more in the vain of the Scary Movie franchise and other spoof films, but it doesn’t go as far with the dumb jokes and cheap laughs. Actually, there aren’t a lot of bad jokes in “The Dead Don’t Die.” An undead person having their eyes repeatedly open after getting makeup applied to their eyelids is one such joke. Another involves three people coming up with the same exact explanation of how two waitresses were killed (a wild animal, perhaps?). They’re light jokes, frothy enough to bring a childish giggle to a very low-key film.
And that’s where the fun ends.
Because at least one character knows the outcome of the film we don’t feel like we’re totally in on the joke. We observe behaviors that are the expected results of zombie film tropes and that’s all. Perhaps it was Jarmusch holding up a mirror to the world to show how unnecessarily obsessed we can be with zombies. Are we to reflect on how caught up we get with the predictability of it all? Zombies invade town, people band together to survive, and a few people die. That’s all there is to these films. Jarmusch at least plays with the subgenre premise by lightening up the mood with easy jokes and an overall light-hearted nature. But is this a satire or spoof? At minimum it’s a conscious effort to flip the bird at zombie films and try to do its own thing.
Oh, and Sturgill Simpson is pretty much the cherry on top of the sundae.