Joyce Glasser reviews The Dead Don’t Die (July 12, 2019), Cert. 15, 105 min.
After his last film, Paterson, a delightful tribute to the poet William Carlos Williams and small town America, Jarmusch is back in the macabre comedy mode of Only Lovers Left Alive (2014). The world weary, intellectual vampires struggling to adjust to modern times in ‘Only Lovers’, give way to hordes of camp zombies forcing three laidback, bespectacled cops to protect Centerville, USA, population 784.
If this a sounds a bit like a whimsical Shaun of the Dead, you are not far off, for The Dead Don’t Die, while heavy on atmosphere, is short on laughs and, by design, equally short on scary moments. But Jarmusch populates Centerville with a wonderful cast, selected from his stable of films (Chloë Sevigny, Tilda Swinton and Bill Murray all appeared in Jarmusch’s Broken Flowers) with a few new additions. And Jarmusch creates such homey sets, affable characters and intriguing, folksy conversation that it isn’t until the second half of the film that you are aware that the film, that feels old hat, is going nowhere.
The police officers are grumpy veteran Cliff (Bill Murray); gloomy Ronnie (Adam Driver) and apprehensive Mindy (Chloë Sevigny) who is so frightened of being overtaken by the blood thirsty creatures, that she reaches out to her grandmother who has risen from her grave. Driver, who starred in Paterson, which was both his character’s name and the name of the city, is here Officer Peterson.
Despite his Keep America White cap, Farmer Miller (Steve Buscemi) is civil enough to Hank Thompson (Danny Glover) in the diner, the town’s only restaurant. Miller is more concerned with his missing chickens (and, later, cattle) than with non-existent immigrants taking local jobs. Patrolling in the woods, Cliff and Ronnie come across Old Bob (Tom Waits) hiding near a skinned chicken, but Cliff, ignoring Ronnie’s mild protest, decides to leave the old geezer alone as he always has.
In the jail cell the corpse of the town wino Mallory (Carol Kane) is waiting for collection and in the diner, waitress Fern (Eszter Balint) and cleaner Lily (Rosal Colon) are shooting the breeze with Hank after Farmer Miller leaves.
But all is not well. Cliff and Ronnie are getting interference on their phones and on the police radio. It’s nearly 9 pm but still light and animals are disappearing at an alarming rate. The disturbances are blamed “polar fracking,” that is causing the earth to get thrown off its axis, which, in a creepy small town called ‘Centerville’, means the centre cannot hold. The news politicises the issue, with job creation (one of Trump’s main campaign pledges) being the reason for this environmental interference.
Ronnie points out that ‘something weird is going on’ and first utters his refrain, ‘this isn’t gonna end well’. It begins to sound like he’s read the script, and toward the end of the film, Jarmusch breaks the fourth wall when Ronnie admits that he has read the script. Murray, perturbed at being left out, was only given scenes. This is supposed to be funny, with audiences presumably chuffed to be in on a director/actor joke, but it feels tired, particularly as by this point, we have ceased to take anything seriously.
When the police partners next turn on the car radio to hear the news, Sturgill Simpson’s The Dead Don’t Die is playing. The CD cover shows a decrepit hand on a guitar in front of a Gothic grave stone on which the title is printed. It must be an in-joke that while Tom Waits is in the cast, it is Simpson’s song that we hear throughout the film and that is played over the end credits.
The officers do not see the dead pushing their way out of the cemetery, led by ‘Coffee Zombies’ Iggy Pop and Sara Driver, Jarmusch’s partner. These two savage zombies tear the guts out of poor Fern and Lily, and exit the diner with the coffee pots, pouring the hot liquid down their mouths and bodies. It is Hank who discovers the gruesome scene and one by one the officers walk in and out where they express their reactions.
Ronnie no longer believes that fracking is the cause, and declares that all signs point to zombies. Caleb Landry Jones’ the nerdy gas station and general store manager; Danny Perkins’ Moonlight Motel manager (Larry Fessenden) and a group of young hipsters passing through town, including Selena Gomez’s friendly, hot-pants wearing Zoe, are made aware of the threat and given survival tips.
While the officers are holed up in the police station, the dead Mallory walks out of her cell, greeting them with the word, ‘Chardonnay’ in the film’s only funny line. The talk turns to Zelda (Swinton), the town’s strange, new undertaker. Zelda meanwhile is practising her sword play as severing the head from the spine is the only way to kill a zombie. When two of her deceased clients rise, presumably to protest her garish make-up job, she effortlessly lops off their heads.
With her sword and red eyes, white skin and stick straight gold hair, Swinton looks like a cross between her character, The Ancient One in the Marvel comic film Dr. Strange, Uma Thurman in Kill Bill and her vampire character in Only Lovers Left Alive. We are waiting for Zelda to save the second half of the film, but are sorely disappointed.
You can watch the film trailer here: