We’re doomed. And most of us don’t even realize it.
That’s the gist of Jim Jarmusch’s apocalyptically political zombie comedy The Dead Don’t Die. The movie is bloody disgusted about the state of affairs in 2019 America, but not so disgusted that it can’t have any fun.
Set in the peaceful, all-American town of Centerville, the film follows lawmen Cliff (Bill Murray) and Ronnie (Adam Driver) as they casually patrol their Norman Rockwell-by-way-of-David-Lynch community. Something seems off—including the fact that the sun refuses to set—but it isn’t until a couple of locals are found disemboweled in a diner that Cliff and Ronnie are roused from their stupor. And even then, there is the repeated insistence that it must have been wild animals. Finally Ronnie suggests, “I’m thinking zombies.”
What’s political about this? Well, earlier at the diner, a farmer (Steve Buscemi) sports a red baseball cap with “Keep America White Again” emblazoned on the front. News reports blame the weird atmospheric conditions on “polar fracking.” Clearly Jarmusch has more on his mind than simply nodding to George Romero’s landmark Night of the Living Dead. (Though that’s also part of the agenda.)
“Deadpan” is the adjective often used to describe a Jarmusch movie, but there’s a slightly different register being hit here. At first it seems as if Cliff and Ronnie are going through the motions of a zombie movie, so comically dry is their line delivery. Eventually, they even begin to break the fourth wall. When the Sturgill Simpson title track (which was indeed penned for the film) plays on the radio, they refer to it as the “theme song.” When one of their banal conversations takes a weird turn, Cliff asks, “Are we improvising here?”
At times, The Dead Don’t Die seems to want to call attention to itself as a bad, low-budget zombie movie. But what it’s really doing is suggesting that we’re in a bad movie version of America. Because, honestly, aren’t we? While the constitution is crumbling—apparently taking soccer away from kids who have been detained at the border is the way to make America great again—and environmental protections are being routinely stripped away, voices of alarm are being ignored. (“If you ask me, this whole thing is gonna end badly,” says Ronnie at the very start of the film, echoing Robert Mueller.) Everyone else seems oblivious; at one point Cliff literally falls into an open grave because he isn’t watching where he’s walking. And the apolitical are just as much to blame. Here, they’re represented by the zombies, who shuffle around town moaning for the cherished items—“coffee,” “Bluetooth,” “Siri”—that kept them distracted when they were alive.
At first it seems as if Cliff and Ronnie are going through the motions of a zombie movie.
Not everyone is useless. Ronnie knows that to take out a zombie you have to “kill the head” (or, you know, impeach). Tom Waits, as a survivalist who lives in the woods, isn’t surprised at all by the attacks. And a trio of kids in a local juvenile detention center seem relatively unfazed, perhaps because fatalism has already been beaten into them.
Those kids are an intriguing element, but unfortunately after a certain point the movie seems to forget about them. There are a few other touches I’m not sure what to do with, even if they are amusing. Tilda Swinton shows up as a Scottish mortician new to Centerville who’s also handy with a samurai sword. And Selena Gomez rolls through town with a group of “hipsters” who meet a grisly end. Not all of these elements come together, or seem to fit with the film’s allegory. When The Dead Don’t Die sputters, you fear that Jarmusch’s political angst may have paralyzed him.
But then there is the bleak, sardonic beauty of the climactic scene, in which Cliff, Ronnie, and another officer played by Chloe Sevigny are trapped in a stalled squad car in the cemetery, the car’s blinking, red-and-blue lights illuminating the silhouettes of zombies pawing at their windows. Cinematographer Frederick Elmes, who has worked with Jarmusch and Lynch before, makes it look like Firecracker Popsicles have been smeared on the glass, then wiped with an American flag. It’s around this time that Ronnie, once again, observes that things are going to end badly. Cliff finally believes him, but by then it’s way too late.