When I first sat down for The Dead Don’t Die, the “zombie comedy” by legendary arthouse director Jim Jarmusch, I was not expecting much. I’d been lukewarm on Jarmusch’s previous efforts Dead Man and Only Lovers Left Alive (the only Jarmusch films I’ve seen to date), and the reviews out of Cannes weren’t encouraging. Much was made about how the film was a painfully obvious satire on modern society, making blatant references to “Everyone’s obsessed with their cell phones” and “It’s like they’re zombies to materialism.” Ugh. I even had an opening paragraph written comparing Jarmusch to Dana Schwartz’s famous Twitter character (and the upcoming star of her most recent novel The White Man’s Guide To White Male Writers Of The Western Canon) That Guy In Your MFA. It took me all of five minutes to realize that the critics at Cannes had woefully misread this film. While there is some social satire to be found, Jarmusch isn’t interested in exploring these themes deeply; they are simply an outlet for his true passion: to make a Mel Brooks/Airplane!-esque comedy that says “f*ck the rules” and lets its wide cast of characters enjoy themselves in a silly comedy. And I for one loved it.
Centerville, USA is your average small Midwestern town. Everyone knows everyone else. There’s a diner run by the lovable Fern (Eszter Balint), the hardware store run by easy-going Hank (Danny Glover), the irritable farmer Frank Miller (Steve Buscemi), and the rascally loner Hermit Bob (Tom Waits). However, when polar fracking forces the Earth off its rotation, strange things start happening: hurricanes hit the coasts, animals flee to the woods, radio towers go down and cell phones stop working. And in Centerville, the dead come back to life, hungry for human flesh. Stranded with hordes of the undead, the town is left in the hands of its three-person police force, Chief Cliff Robinson (Bill Murray), Officer Ronnie Peterson (Adam Driver), and Officer Mindy Morrison (Chloë Sevigny), as well as a strange Buddhist Scottish mortician gifted in both the art of drag makeup and katana swordplay (Tilda Swinton).
I get why people are growing annoyed with the “satire” on display in The Dead Don’t Die. There are a lot of scenes – and I mean a lot of scenes, that play out like a college freshman’s attempt at witty creative writing. UPS is renamed “WU-PS,” as in “Whoops” (although this could also be a reference to the truck’s driver being RZA from Wu-Tang). Steve Buscemi’s racist farmer wears a distinct red hat that proclaims “Keep America White Again.” The whole apocalypse is caused when the Earth starts spinning the opposite way on its axis “because of polar fracking,” which is…more than a little on the nose. And when the zombies return to life, they gravitate towards “the things they used to do when they were alive,” meaning the zombies stumble around muttering “Coffee…Wi-fi…free cable…Ambien…Chardonnay…” and more, while staring at their cell phones blankly. It’s a pretty blunt metaphor for “people aren’t paying attention because technology has made them zombies to the system.” And if this were indeed the point of the movie, I would agree it would be almost unwatchable, like a bad imitation of Dawn of the Dead. However, Jarmusch is an artist, first and foremost, and famously an artist who obsesses over showing, not telling. Why would someone so talented make a film so obvious, unless…unless he wants to use these faux themes as a mock-justification of his story. In fact, I’d even wager that Jarmusch wants us to gravitate towards the overtly satiric moments, in the hopes that we would falsely believe that’s what the film is about. The dramatic undertones are not meant to really matter; and when they do, Jarmusch tackles things with a subtler approach, like a long-abandoned copy of Moby Dick, a book about nature striking back at an unsuspecting mankind, or the fact that all the teens in the juvenile detention center happen to be black (the only kids of color we see in this seemingly “nice” small town, or even the occasional tapes of the Secretary of Energy defending the polar fracking, where he claims scientists are un-American. No, in reality, Jarmushc uses the drama only as a means of justifying why a living legend would want to make what this movie truly is: a wacky, insane, fun comedy. It almost feels like Jarmusch was trying to pull off an anti-Farrelly: instead of a comedy director making a race drama with random moments of comedy, this is a dramatic director making a silly comedy with random moments of drama. And honestly? I think it works better than last year’s Best Picture winner. Now, does it all come together seamlessly? Not exactly – as I said, some of the humor is a little too obvious, and there’s an absurdly blunt final monologue where Hermit Bob declares that they’re just “remnants of a materialist people. I guess they were zombies all along. They were all obsessed with their Nintendo Game Boys to think about what was really goin’ on.” But even when the film delivers dialogue this cheesy and terrible, at least it does so in Tom Waits’ iconic voice.
But I don’t just believe the better satire is the subtler satire – I’m convinced the satire doesn’t matter at all. There is more than ample evidence that Jim Jarmusch desires nothing more than to cast off the world of the auteur and just make a dumb comedy, and I am here for it. Much like Mel Brooks and the Zucker Brothers furthered the art of comedy by destroying convention and style, so too has Jarmusch. Jarmusch plays with tropes, the fourth wall, and absurdism throughout, all as a means of having fun with his audience. There’s a running gag throughout the film where the film’s theme song, “The Dead Don’t Die” by Sturgill Simpson, is played ad naseum, with most characters commenting when it appears by saying, “Oh man, ‘The Dead Don’t Die’ by Sturgill Simpson? I love this song!” The film is so in-the-know about the song’s presence that the second time it is played, following its use in the opening titles, Bill Murray openly comments, “Why does this song sound so familiar?” Meanwhile, jokes are continuously run into the ground and back to the surface again throughout, the way Sideshow Bob infamously stepped on rakes for a minute straight. Jarmusch’s characters constantly repeat lines to the chagrin of others, like “the whole world’s acting strangely,” or “This isn’t gonna end well.” And there’s a terrific sequence where the same joke is repeated three times in a row: every single police officer separately enters a diner where two townsfolk were attacked by zombies, stares at the exact same shots of the deceased, and emerges to say the exact same lines: “Was it a wild animal? Several wild animals?” It’s all so silly and in-the-know that it’s hard not to be won over. While the dialogue in the script occasionally runs dangerously close to becoming corny or cheesy, Jarmusch carefully balances these pratfalls with non-sequiters and weird lines to be spoken by weird individuals. For example, Tom Waits utters the following phrase, in his own iconic voice, to great comedic effect: “G*ddammit. Ghouls. This is full-on, undead, reanimated zombie sh*t.” And a character later utters a line so iconic, you can almost hear it echoing from the future as a Midnight Madness Quote-Along screening: “They’re not zombies! They’re just dead hipsters from Cleveland!” And every time the dialogue risks becoming too cheesy, or too on-the-nose, Jarmusch throws in an insane sight gag, like Adam Driver locking the car door nonchalantly in response to seeing one of his best friends getting torn to shreds by a zombie. Or Driver casually holding the severed head of a famous celebrity. Or Driver pulling up to a crime scene in a tiny red smart car…you know what? Jarmusch really knows how to use Adam Driver’s comedic timing and massive frame as a sight gag – and we’re all the better for it. I could go on and on about a lot of Jarmusch’s quirky little details. I could talk more about the fact that Tom Waits plays a hermit named Hermit Bob. I could talk about the fact that this film, an art film by one of the most avant-garde directors of the last thirty years, features an homage to Tommy Boy, a 1995 Chris Farley comedy. I could talk about a lot of things. However, I would rather let you experience these jokes for yourselves, with the following detail to seal the deal: in the final fifteen minutes of this movie, Jarmusch decides to Go Big or Go Home with some of the dumbest, silliest narrative decisions I have ever seen. And they work. They elevate this movie onto another level. They’re the types of decisions that make you simultaneously say, “What was he thinking?” and “Thank God he was thinking it.” I don’t want to say much more, other than if you had any doubts that Jarmusch intended for this movie to be a mindless comedy and not some hackneyed bit of satire, watch Bill Murray and Adam Driver walking in slow-motion to battle a horde of zombies, and see if those doubters hold water.
As for the cast, the sprawling cast of the undead deserves massive kudos for making this silliness work as well as it does. As the film’s co-leads, enough cannot be said about Bill Murray and Adam Driver. Murray in particular is great as Cliff Robertson. Murray plays the role with the sense of over-it disinterest that he brought to Space Jam all those years ago, but here it fits the character better – Murray’s exasperation at the absurdity of the world around him is palpable throughout. Meanwhile, Driver fits into this universe perfectly, throwing his whole body into every dumb sight gag and physical comedy bit he is given, and even mastering his interactions with other characters beautifully – his awkward flirtations with Chloe Sevigny are hilarious. Tom Waits delivers a series of silly meditations in his iconic voice, to great effect. And Steve Buscemi and Danny Glover show up to do their Steve Buscemi and Danny Glover thing. Meanwhile, the assembly of side characters each manage to stand out, from Selena Gomez, Austin Butler, and Luka Sabbat as three drifters passing through town in the classic car from Night of the Living Dead (Gomez is given a random halo at one point in one of the film’s greatest moments) to Caleb Landry Jones as a properly creepy Bobby Wiggins (Jones is one of the weirdest, but greatest rising actors in this business). I don’t want to gloss over the talented selection of actors Jarmusch has assembled to play zombies in this film, which includes Carol Kane as the Chardonnay-loving Mallory and Iggy Pop as an undead ghoul obsessed with coffee (it’s literally his only line/scene). Oh, and in case you still don’t believe me that this is nothing more than a dumb comedy to make you laugh, know this, dear readers: Rosie Perez shows up as an egotistical news anchor named Posie Juarez. Listen to the silliness of that name and tell me again that this movie is supposed to have something deep to say. However, if there’s one performer in this film you’re going to remember, it’s Tilda Swinton as Zelda Winston. Swinton, a master of accents and weird-ass characters, plays Zelda as a Scottish katana-weilding Buddhist undertaker. Throughout her performance, Swinton makes choices, including only turning on 90 degree angles whenever she’s walking from one place to another. It is one of the weirdest performances I have ever seen (and I’ve seen The Room 30 times), and I loved every minute of it. I am thoroughly onboard for Swinton to earn an Oscar nomination for this performance, and I will not take no for an answer.
Look, The Dead Don’t Die may not be for everyone. It is a massive swing by a usually out-there director, who is forgoing everything about his usual style and talent to make a dumb comedy for the masses. It could very well be a sign that Jarmusch has full-on transformed into The Joker in The Killing Joke – losing his mind in the wake of modern tragedies and seeing inherent silliness everywhere. But I want to make it perfectly clear: if you know what to look for in this film, you’re going to have a great time. This is not some sort of sharp satire about modern-day America. It is not some deep reflection on existential existence. It is a Dadaist exercise, through and through – a revelry in the silliness of existence, where nothing matters, and inspiration is drawn more from Blazing Saddles than from George A. Romero. I did not expect to love this film. If it had been what other critics implied it to be, I would not have loved this film. But here I am, on my hands and knees, imploring you to give this film a chance: it certainly earns its credentials.