Jim Jarmusch’s latest feature, The Dead Don’t Die, is a curious movie that exists in two realities at once: one in which it is good, and one in which it is bad. It’s like Milliways, the restaurant at the end of the universe in that it is simultaneously a sublime treat and a total disaster. Whether or not you will enjoy this movie entirely depends on your tolerance for ironic detachment, meta references, and classic zombie movie gore gags. If you actually like zombie movies and would like a return to their roots as something other than a Walking Dead-style misery carousel, you might enjoy The Dead Don’t Die. If, however, you do not like zombie movies, this will not change your mind. Let’s take a look at both versions of The Dead Don’t Die.
The Good Version
Set in the small town of Centerville, The Dead Don’t Die follows a group of citizens as strange things begin happening, seemingly because the earth has been knocked off its axis by “polar fracking”. The normal cycle of night and day has been interrupted, and when the moon begins exhibiting strange purple flares, the dead citizens begin to rise from their graves and eat the living. At the center of the mayhem is the local police force, headed by Chief Cliff Robertson (Bill Murray) and his laconic deputy, Officer Ronnie Peterson (Adam Driver). Early on, Ronnie declares that “this won’t end well”, and the movie is haunted by a theme song, “The Dead Don’t Die” by Sturgill Simpson.
The zombies gravitate to the things they liked when alive, with some trying to play sports, others pursuing various beverages, and kid-zombies pillaging the local candy supply. Jarmusch evokes George Romero’s view of consumerism as a kind of mindless plunder, with zombies searching for “WiiiFiiii”, and the same escapism they sought as living people. The world is obviously being destroyed by aggressive resource acquisition, but no one cares beyond noting the unusual daylight hours. The only person who seems at all attuned to what’s going on is Hermit Bob (Tom Waits), who lives in the woods. The metaphor is not deep, but it is consistent.
The characters are similarly not deep, but consistent. Cliff is going through the motions, Ronnie is fatalistic, their fellow officer Mindy (Chloe Sevigny) is high strung. The Dead Don’t Die references Romero in style and direct dialogue, but also by bringing the zombie story back to its simple formula and characters that are more archetypes than tangible people. Dead presents America in broad strokes, from our emboldened bigots to our self-destructive societal impulses. And it’s done with a bone-dry sense of humor and knowing wink at the audience. This is a movie that doesn’t take itself too seriously but is loyal to its own conceit.
The Bad Version
“Polar fracking” is a cheap way to avoid addressing real environmental upheaval occurring right now, evoking the cascading consequences of climate change without directly engaging in the politics of climate change. In fact, a lot of The Dead Don’t Die is rooted in a kind of craven avoidance, invoking MAGA without saying the words, lumping all forms bigotry into one “country bumpkin” stereotype, and chastising young people for existing, I guess. And the constant talking about the theme song and meta references to the script are annoying and overdone and not actually funny. Tilda Swinton is cool, but the other characters range from underdeveloped to outright mean-spirited.
Zombies as symbols of consumerism isn’t new, and Dead’s use of the allegory is not homaging Night of the Living Dead, it’s just a shallow reproduction with nothing new to add to the genre. The ironic humor is smug and self-satisfied, and there is none of the wit or grace of Only Lovers Left Alive, Jarmusch’s dreamy, romantic take on post-modern vampires. Dead is cold and so detached it feels hollow. It feels like Jarmusch has nothing to say beyond, “The world is doomed, everyone is obsessed with their smartphones, and Romero was cool.”
It’s a crap-shoot as to which version of The Dead Don’t Die you will see. You’re either going to love it, or absolutely loathe it. After a couple of unusually accessible films, Jarmusch has retreated to his typical fastness, and only some people are going to respond to what he’s doing. It worked for me, I enjoyed the references and in jokes and meta gags. But I know this will not work for everyone, and no amount of Tilda Swinton is going to make up for the more precious aspects for a lot of people. The Dead Don’t Die is either going to be the best movie you’ve seen in a while, or an absolutely pile of garbage you yearn to set on fire, and nothing in between.