Isn't It Ironic That "The Dead Don't Die"?
Updated: Mar 27
"This is going to end badly. Just have a feeling."
"'The Dead Don't Die.' Sturgill Simpson. Great song."
"Kill the head."
A lot is repeated in Jim Jarmusch's The Dead Don't Die, often to hilarious effect. They're not catchphrases, more like observations of those who practically sigh at the end of world. Or like that story or factoid that you've probably told about 25 times and might have even mentioned this morning once or twice but might as well repeat now to be sure they heard it.
The film also plays its meta card early on. After we hear Sturgill Simpson's "The Dead Don't Die" over the opening credits, a car radio in the following scene also plays the song. "Ah," I thought. "They must have intended this scene to be the opening credits. Something must have happened. Perhaps they ran out of scene for all the credits that needed credited." As I finish this thought, Bill Murray's police officer character asks, "Why does this feel so familiar?"
His partner, played by Adam Driver, looks at him and matter-of-factly responds, "It's the theme song."
The film will shuffle between these two hands often. Some will ask, "What's the point?" Others will think it's dumb. I found it consistently hilarious.
The writer-director of Paterson, one of 2016's best films, comes into 2019 with a film that's very much not the simple intimacy and poetry of Adam Driver driving a bus. Rather, The Dead Don't Die purposefully distances itself from its audience to make it laugh and consider its end times. There's a large ensemble at play here, including Selena Gomez (The Fundamentals of Caring), Danny Glover (Sorry to Bother You), Steve Buscemi (Boardwalk Empire), and Carol Kane (The Princess Bride), but the main story at play here is with the quirky Centerville Police Department, comprised entirely of a chief who's been there and done that (Bill Murray), an officer with a predilection for matter-of-fact pessimism (Adam Driver, Star Wars), and a sensitive officer who would prefer to stay close to home and normalcy, thank you very much (Chloe Sevigny, Zodiac).
It's kinda hard to do the latter, though, when changes in basic planetary function extend the day, make domestic pets feral, and, you know, wake the undead, the zombies, or as Adam Driver iconically says...
As the zombie infestation spreads across the nation, the officers do what they can in the face of apocalypse, which is, frankly, not much, except try not to lose their minds. Adam Driver accepts the truth: "This is going to end badly." After all, how many zombie apocalypse stories end goodly? At best, survival is prolonged by destroying a wave of zombies and driving to the next zombie town. Even then, somebody (not a zombie) is probably an awful person and will kill everybody for this, that, or the other reason. At worst, everybody dies. I'm not a dedicated viewer of the program, but I'm pretty sure The Walking Dead gave up on the idea of a zombie cure happy ending in season two.
But Jarmusch's characters seem pretty keenly aware of what kind of movie they're in. There's not much debate on whether ghastly murders are zombie attacks; they just get straight to the head-killing.
It's not just a Scream-esque knowledge of the genre tropes that make The Dead Don't Die so self-aware. In several ways, it's aware of what you might be experiencing as you watch it, that it's a movie, and who's in the movie. It'll do this in clever jokes. It'll do it in visual dad jokes. And it'll do it in ways absurd and unexpected. It grooves to its weirdness without forgetting to invite you to dance, too.
While the groove is groovy, it does create a gulf between the audience and the characters. As the feasting intensifies and characters start dropping, you start to realize you didn't really get to know them all too well. Arcs drop like the bodies hit the floor. Who you thought was going to be a major player just ain't gonna be. It's not like a war novel where a character doesn't get to see a complete story because that's how it is. These characters just weren't written as fleshed-out characters.
Yes, that pun was intended.
If these characters seem listless and resigned and repetitive, it's because that's how Jarmusch fears we've become or will soon become if we don't stop. Our character traits are what we do and what we consume: Selena Gomez is the embodiment of film-nerd fantasy; he's a police officer; this is a farmer; that's a hermit. We let our treasures on earth define us and rule us. What guided our minds and hearts while we lived? Coffee? We are apt to believe that which makes us change less. Sure, leading intellectuals say this, but have you heard what the corporations with questionable conscience and that one contrarian said? We may be alive, but perhaps we are dead in important ways. Jarmusch isn't subtle in the slightest about this. He didn't mean to be, either.
No zombie tropes are completely new here, but the attitude with which they're executed feels fresh. I doubt this movie will appeal to everyone. My brother and I laughed a lot, but others asked the classic question "What the #&^@?" afterwards (one can't describe the amusement of hearing a carat pronounced). A couple of girls in the row ahead of us stayed through the entire credits in profound incredulity. And while I enjoyed the film, it was hard to take away any real feeling from the movie because of the alienation through comedy - though I now have a pocket full of quotable lines.
I will say this: If you want something off-kilter, different, and hilariously meta and weird this weekend, take a chance on The Dead Don't Die, if only for Adam Driver and his love of ghouls. If that's not your speed and you don't feel like contributing to franchises that won't die (or in the case of Dark Phoenix, already dead), take a gander on one of Jarmusch's previous films, like Mystery Train or Paterson.
Also, Tilda Swinton's in this.