The Dead Don’t Die, the new zombie comedy from indie legend Jim Jarmusch (Coffee and Cigarettes, Ghost Dog), puts a very tall, very large Adam Driver in a very small, very compact Smart car. The image defines Jarmusch, whose dry humor excels with juxtaposition. Driver is big. The car is little. That’s the joke.
That oddball sensibility makes The Dead Don’t Die a pleasure, if also one of the stranger entries in Jarmusch’s filmography. Polar fracking, and the resulting shift in the Earth’s rotation, causes the dead to rise from their graves, stumbling through the sleepy little town of Centerville in search of what they loved during their living days. The resurrected town lush groans about chardonnay, while other zombies amble towards coffee, free cable, or a stable wifi connection.
The local police — Chief Cliff Robertson (Bill Murray) and officers Ronnie (Adam Driver) and Mindy (Chloë Sevigny) — find themselves at the center of the storm, trying to keep order while figuring out what’s going on. That’s about as much of a plot as there is, as the film is mostly composed of little vignettes around town, introducing us to various locals and tying it all together with the officers’ investigation into the aftermath. Brief interstitials focusing on local recluse Hermit Bob (Tom Waits), who observes it all unfolding from a safe distance, serve as makeshift bookends, helping give the effective chapters shape.
The oncoming apocalypse — by way of flesh-eating undead, no less — usually demands a sense of panic or hysteria. The Dead Don’t Die is largely devoid of that urgency, save in brief moments in which Mindy, the only character who reacts in a remotely human way, expresses her increasing anxiety. Jarmusch isn’t trying to prevent (or rush towards) the end of the world; like Hermit Bob, he’s inclined to watch it happen.
Given just how odd Jarmusch’s foray into vampire territory, Only Lovers Left Alive, was, The Dead Don’t Die’s idiosyncrasies shouldn’t come as too much of a surprise. They’re also the key to the movie standing out in a crowded genre. Train to Busan, the 2016 South Korean zombie movie, made a splash by setting the action on a speeding train, thereby toying with character tropes, reactions, and escape plans. Though Jarmusch’s latest work isn’t as much of a shake-up, his refusal to rush and succumb to extremes of emotion in an extreme situation turn The Dead Don’t Die into something unique.
There’s a tinge of melancholy to almost everything Jarmusch has ever made, and The Dead Don’t Die is perhaps his most hopeless. It’s not devoid of warmth or tenderness, but it takes its take on the end of the world seriously. The world is ending. People die. That’s that. That pervading aura of nihilism has a depressive effect, particularly in combination with Jarmusch’s penchant for slow burn; what is the point of fighting the tide if we’re doomed no matter what? (It’s telling that Jarmusch’s version of the end of the world doesn’t include any scientists — nobody seems to be working to find a zombie cure.)
That environmental change is the cause of the zombie uprising is fairly on the nose, as is the “Make America White Again” hat sported by a local farmer (played by Steve Buscemi) and just how many of the zombies are still glued to their phones. The commentary on the shallow and consumerist nature of contemporary society is made explicit in the film’s eleventh hour in a way that feels unnecessary and ultimately undermining.
Dourness of message aside, The Dead Don’t Die doesn’t lack for charm. Its cast, which includes Tilda Swinton as a katana-wielding mortician, Iggy Pop as a coffee-seeking zombie, Selena Gomez as a so-called “hipster,” and the Wu-Tang Clan’s RZA as a wisdom-dispensing “WuPS” delivery man, is a delight, as is the use of a Sturgill Simpson song (“The Dead Don’t Die,” presumably written for the film) as the movie’s theme. Other little character details — Swinton’s character takes multiple right angle turns instead of taking diagonal paths, for instance — add to the sense of a lived-in world.
That tenderness goes some way towards mitigating the effect of the overall story arc, and will likely be more of what you remember when you leave the theater. And thank goodness for that — there’s still something left to cherish in this world, even if it is all going to hell.