Revered director Jim Jarmusch has built a career from making brilliant films that are big on character and rich in life. As such, story has never seemed to be at the top of his list of priorities. His first excellent, whimsical and amusing film in which very little happens, was his debut, Permanent Vacation (1980). His most recent excellent, whimsical and amusing film in which very little happens, was Paterson (2016).
For The Dead Don’t Die, the 13th fiction feature he has written and directed, the man with perhaps the driest comedic chops in cinema takes on the zombie genre. It’s bizarrely fitting, too. If there’s a director one would wish to put the dead into the deadpan, it has to be Jarmusch.
In The Dead Don’t Die, Cliff Robertson (Bill Murray) and Officer Ronnie Peterson (Adam Driver) notice a series of odd occurrences while cruising around smalltown Centerville, their area of jurisdiction and a representation of middle America in both population and moniker.
Daylight seems to be lasting longer into the evening than usual, Peterson’s watch stops and he states what becomes a repeated signature line, “This is going to end badly.” When night eventually falls, the dead begin rising from the grave and two waitresses are eaten by zombies (Iggy pop and Sara Driver) in the local diner.
TV reports by Posie Juarez (Rosie Perez) suggest strange goings-on are due to fracking shifting the earth off its axis and, soon, undead hordes are (slowly) rampaging all over town. Most townsfolk fail to deal with them effectively, with the notable exception of Zelda Winston (Tilda Swinton), an oddball undertaker who happens to be adept with a samurai sword. Robertson and Peterson team up with Winston and their colleague Mindy Morrison (Chloë Sevigny) to stay alive but, in true zombie film style, it’s a pretty hopeless situation.
Death is seemingly one of Jarmusch’s key topics, perhaps most notably in his self-described psychedelic western Dead Man (1995), vampire romance Only Lovers Left Alive (2013), and his pair of leftfield assassin movies Ghost Dog: Way Of The Samurai (1999) and The Limits Of Control (2009). Here though, the dead are onscreen far more often and are portrayed for laughs rather than any serious point, regardless of the eco-message that may be inferred by fracking causing apocalyptic mayhem.
Enviromental hand-wringing aside, there are plenty of jokes – though, as you might expect from a Jarmusch movie, most will provide smiles and mild chuckles rather than belly laughs. The ghouls groan “coffee”, “wifi” and “Chardonnay” among the living pleasures they miss. The depiction of bloody zombie carnage is satisfying too, with many nods to the works of genre master George A Romero throughout. An appropriate mood of creeping dread is set by frequent Jarmusch collaborator Frederick Elmes’ immaculate cinematography and SQÜRL’s atmospheric score.
The starry cast is on fine form with a sprinkling of Jarmusch regulars delivering the goods, albeit mostly in slow, considered fashion. Murray and Driver pretty much bumble through the film as the least likely shotgun-toting heroes you’ll see. There are moments that don’t quite work, such as when they break the fourth wall, but these are occasional enough to forgive.
RZA is a poetic postman working for WU-PS (a great nod to the rapper’s non-film day job). Steve Buscemi is on top form as an angry and hilarious right-wing redneck, his “Make America White Again” cap clearly a nod to Donald Trump and his acolytes. It’s particularly amusing to see Danny Glover react to him. Swinton, meanwhile, has tremendous fun and is the cast member who’s the most memorable after viewing, as with so many films she appears in.
Under normal circumstances, if you saw Murray, Driver or Swinton in a Jarmusch film, you’d expect a quiet, beautiful film full of subtle little moments of wonder. Somehow, this usual approach has been mapped over a genre film in which guts and brains are eaten with vigour and the undead are shot down again and again. It shouldn’t work, but it does. The result is a super-droll zombie film crafted with great care and affection by America’s foremost indie auteur.