The title comes from a Sturgis Simpson song which plays over the credits and then continually throughout the film, often remarked on by the characters. Adam Driver as Officer Ronald Peterson refers to it as “the theme song”, warranting no request for explanation from Bill Murray’s Chief Cliff Robertson. Throughout the film, Ronnie repeatedly says “this is going to end badly”, eventually revealing that he knows because he’s read the script. While these fourth-wall gags land in the moment, they also represent one of the glaring flaws of The Dead Don’t Die. From the opening shot of an off-kilter, Scooby-Doo graveyard to the head-shearing standoff, Jim Jarmusch provides more than enough homage to pull off a satisfying genre sendup without all of the glib self referencing, which comes across as not so much an affectionate portrayal of zombie-flicks and small towns, but a petty mockery. The tone works for a spoof, but not for the ostensibly higher purpose that Jarmusch set out to fulfill.
Grabbing the baton from George Romero, this film attempts to use its premise for social commentary, but can’t seem to stay on one topic long enough to drive anything home. The zombies, in addition to eating people, gravitate towards the things they did in life, such as tennis or drinking coffee. Perhaps this illustrates the complacency of everyday Americans — uninformed denizens distracted by consumer culture, oblivious to the role they play in a toxic system, and going about their old routines as if the world were not crumbling around them. Too little time is spent on this premise, unfortunately, to really confirm that reading, and Jarmusch mostly uses it for cheap humor. In one scene, a millenial zombie in flashy clothes strikes a pose and grunts “fashion,” a lazy attempt to poke fun at the perceived vapidity and materialism of the younger generation. Occasionally the characters watch the news, where climate change and polar fracking reports play alongside zombie coverage, suggesting a link between the two. While the topical allusion scores points for originality and relevance (as opposed to lab experiments gone wrong or unexplained mumbo jumbo), it never goes farther than simply being mentioned, and the same is true of the references to the Trump administration in the form of Steve Buscemi’s cranky farmer Miller who dons a MAGA-style “Make American White Again” hat.
The strengths of The Dead Don’t Die lie in the characters: Bill Murray and Adam Driver’s old-and-young but equally nonplussed policemen with Chloe Sevigny’s jumpy Officer Minerva Morrison rounding out the town of Centerville’s only rule of law; Danny Glover and Caleb Landry Jones as the soft-spoken working stiffs who hold up in a hardware store, another charming, intergenerational pairing; and of course, the magnificent Tilda Swinton as the town’s peculiar new undertaker and master of the samurai sword, hailing from either Scotland or perhaps Rivendell in Middle Earth. Most characters get a chance to shine within a fun scene or two, most of them, as it happens, taking place outside of the zombie apocalypse plot. The opening scene has Murray and Driver encountering the town hermit, played by Jarmusch veteran Tom Waits. Despite shooting at the officers, they decide to let him off the hook, with Murray’s Chief Robertson sternly telling him to “settle down”. This kind of dry absurdity accounts for most of the well-earned laughs.
These fleeting vignettes are enjoyable enough to just barely make The Dead Don’t Die worthy of recommendation, even though I found myself disappointed with the lack of thematic focus and the overall failure to launch in the narrative. Let me put it this way: I’d probably rather watch a subpar Jim Jarmusch zombie movie than a goodish studio one. | Nic Champion