There’s not one specific way to take Jim Jarmusch’s The Dead Don’t Die. Cautionary tale, social commentary, absurdist fiction, comedy, horror, parody, political satire, you name it – it’s in here. It’s a wild ride through the mind of one of independent film’s legendary figures, having blazed similar side trails through the landscape of been-there-done-that cinema for almost forty years.
Staying in the horror arena after tackling vampires in 2014’s Only Lovers Left Alive, Jarmusch moves onto the ever-popular zombie genre with The Dead Don’t Die. Saying “puts his own spin on zombies” does a disservice to the nature of “spin” itself; this is not so much a zombie movie as a kitchen-sink film, where anything and everything could happen. A lot of it feels like we’re at the whim of whatever side of the bed Jarmusch woke up on before settling down to write whatever pages came out of him that day.
We float between meta-comedy and environmental horror and science-fiction and other various notions, but it doesn’t feel disparate or disjointed. On the contrary, it all feels expected once we settle into how quickly Jarmusch switches whatever side of his mouth he’s talking out of. You see, the three law enforcement officials of Centerville, OH – somewhat reminiscent of the calls-it-as-she-sees-it Sheriff Marge Gunderson from 1996’s Fargo – have some weirdness to deal with in their little town. The sun’s not setting, watches and cell phones have gone on the blink, animals start disappearing, and the dead are rising from their graves to munch on the living.
Why? News reports blame it on “polar fracking,” which has thrown Earth off its axis and set the moon aglow with some kind of ethereal bluish-reddish flame. This jab at environmental issues is outlandish and heavy-handed, yet it’s hard to dismiss, serving a fine purpose as both raison d’etre and real-world valid concern. (Not that any country would be stupid enough to undertake something so foolhardy, but these days, nothing’s unreasonable or unthinkable.) Our characters are imbued with a tired, weary manner regarding what we’ve done to the Earth; no one, save one person (and we’ll get into that later), speaks above a room-friendly tone, almost as if they’ve resigned themselves to being responsible for destroying the planet.
But Jarmusch has other strings he’d like to pull in addition to his environmental message. His self-referential humor pokes through in Hermit Bob’s (Tom Waits) voiceover assessments of how things are playing out. However, Hermit Bob’s just a loon who talks self-importantly to himself, passing his rants off as the film’s narration when he probably knows just as much about what’s going on as we do. Waits pulls off the perfect tone for this kind of semi-serious parody, grizzled and secretive, but thorough in his observations. We don’t know whether to believe in him or laugh at him, and we wind up doing a lot of both.
The meta-humor extends to Chief Cliff Robertson (Bill Murray) and Officer Ronnie Peterson (Adam Driver), as they bookend the film with completely out-of-left-field references to how the actual film has been put together. It throws us in a weird space at the beginning, as it constantly puts us on edge, awaiting the next fourth wall-shattering, but none happens until the very end. Everything is played straight – well, as straight as Jarmusch allows it to be – except for these two bits of dialogue which totally change our perception of The Dead Don’t Die.
The zombies represent different fears to each individual. To one guy in a “Make America White Again” hat who always seems and talks angry, they are nothing but trespassers. To another character, it’s familial loss. We learn of Cliff’s plans to retire, which he rages against in his fight against the undead. It’s a part of the humor which Jarmusch chooses to dot this oddity of a movie. Sure, some of us will get great pleasure out of seeing the man with the MAWA hat getting whatever’s coming to him, considering what he’s satirizing, but bigger laughs are reserved for its more quiet jokes. There’s one character whose sudden residency in Centerville causes a stir and a lot of gossip; when you see the truth behind this person, you’ll probably shake your head in confusion and laugh bemusedly. But these – along with many more instances of Cliff and Ronnie being an awkward twosome – are just examples of the kind of non-sequiturial shenanigans which Jarmusch uses to keep us guessing.
Our zombies don’t run, but Jarmusch’s undead have a surprising minimal use of language. Throwing back to George A. Romero’s 1978 masterpiece Dawn of the Dead, we’re shown that the zombies’ single-mindedness extends not only to the pleasure of consuming human flesh, but to their human routines. This is where their command of language makes their desires known, usually expressed in one-word desires like “coffee” or “chardonnay.” Also of note is the way the zombies fall on their victims as a mob, which takes on a different context in today’s outrage culture driven by anonymous Twitter postings and hiding behind internet handles to pump vitriol into our discourse.
So what is Jim Jarmusch saying? If we are to believe The Dead Don’t Die, Jarmusch is basically saying that we’re screwed. To quote Chidi Anagonye from “The Good Place”: There is no point to anything, and you’re just gonna die. People either give up or go down fighting, and it’s curious to see the ones who willingly give themselves over to the zombie horde. As if they’re just too tired of dealing with resisting, regardless of the weaponry they might have at hand. Eventually, they become what they abhorred, just another member of the walking dead doing whatever it is they do. It’s not an easy movie to predict, no matter how much Officer Ronald Peterson says “This is all going to end badly.” But no one ever said Jarmusch did things the easy way, and The Dead Don’t Die is a perfect example of the unexpected.