Zombie comedy The Dead Don’t Die isn’t Jim Jarmusch’s best film, but its weirdly comical sequences, memorable quotes and absurd characters make it a thoroughly entertaining, ultimately unforgettable watch.
If making an original zombie film is getting harder by the day, tackling the zombie-comedy hybrid is becoming even harder. Since their first appearance in Romero’s Night of the Living Dead, modern zombies have been constantly evolving throughout the years, and so has the subgenre. The spirit-possessed creatures of the 1980s became scarier and gorier in the Nineties, evolved into virus-infected, inhumanly fast-moving beings in the 2000s and are still very popular to this day in many films and shows, so much so that they have become part of our culture.
But if zombies are getting more popular by the hour, they are also becoming funnier. From Shaun of the Dead to Zombieland, we’ve seen zombie comedies that revolutionised the whole genre with hilarious characters, iconic lines and hugely referenced scenes. At the same time, we’ve also seen many hybrid movies that tried to replicate this winning recipe but weren’t original enough to stand out in a very crowded scene. And, in between unsuccessful remakes, pleasant surprises and the occasional rip-off, here comes Jim Jarmusch with a film that is something else entirely.
Met with mixed reactions at Cannes and heavily criticised by the press for being either too weird or not weird enough, The Dead Don’t Die isn’t going to be everyone’s cup of tea. During the course of his impressive career, Jarmusch has gotten us used to his distinctive style, giving us a whole new kind of “indie film”. From Stranger Than Paradise to Paterson, his movies have drawn us into the visually unique, lonely worlds of his unlikely protagonists, making us ponder life’s big questions while keeping us entertained with his wry humour. With all these iconic movies in mind, expectations were high for the beloved director’s first zombie film. And if The Dead Don’t Die is just as witty, fascinating and aesthetically beautiful as its predecessors, it is also a more bizarre, much bleaker kind of “Jarmusch film”.
In fact, this zombie comedy isn’t about the zombies as much as it is about humans. If a traditional horror film would normally give us a detailed explanation to justify the impending apocalypse, The Dead Don’t Die immediately shifts the attention back to the living. And not only does human kind seem to be completely satisfied with the weak, vague explanation that the world is ending because “polar flacking” made the Earth slip off its axis: as coffee-drinking zombies take over the town, nobody really seems to be able to do anything about it. It’s in this passive attitude that Jarmusch’s message resonates: if humanity has lost its ability to fight for its survival, do we really deserve to live?
If Jarmusch’s view of the world has grown darker and more pessimistic, this doesn’t affect the pace of his film. The Dead Don’t Die has a way of not taking itself too seriously that will make it impossible for you not to laugh at most of its absurd developments and get drawn into a place where time moves at a different pace. Bill Murray, Adam Driver and Chloë Sevigny are exceptional as Chief Cliff Robertson and Officers Peterson and Morrison – three genuinely likeable, hugely relatable characters who are the perfect guides to help us navigate this wonderfully nonsensical world.
As our favourite police officers devise new ways to stay alive while investigating on technological malfunctions and inexplicable disappearances, they keep us entertained with their sarcastic comments and extremely human reactions to the most random occurrences. As more and more bodies become “undead”, we listen to their absurd conversations, we laugh at their macabre jokes and, though our doubts on their investigative abilities remain, we can’t wait to see them in action again. With every new scene come new, hilarious gags, and, just when things seem to be getting serious, here comes Adam Driver once again with his obscure yet all-too-familiar foreshadowing. “This is all going to end badly“, he says for the millionth time (and in a way that somehow reminds us of his Star Wars father’s “bad feeling about this”), and we are in fits all over again.
“This is all going to end badly”.Officer Peterson
Our unlikely heroes surprise us in many ways, and one of the most startling discoveries is that they are one hundred percent aware that they’re in a movie. From their comments on the familiarity of the “theme song” (which happens to be Sturgill Simpson’s The Dead Don’t Die) to their admitting of knowing something about the film because they have “read the script”, these characters break the fourth wall in a way that puts them in the unique position of being both protagonists and spectators. As the film’s alienating atmosphere effortlessly turns into something more familiar, these fictional characters become part of the audience and establish an extremely real connection with us.
But the discoveries aren’t over, as our three heroes are oddly the most normal characters in the film. In a movie that takes pride in its stellar cast, every single one of its characters gets to have its iconic moment with the exact right amount of weirdness. There’s a racist Steve Buscemi walking around with a red “Keep America White Again” hat, claiming the elusive Hermit Bob (Tom Waits) has stolen his chicken. There’s a very patient hardware store owner (Danny Glover) trying to help, and there’s a petrol station owner (Caleb Landry Jones) imparting horror movie-related wisdom to strangers.
Meanthile, in a Juvenile Detection Center, two girls and a boy (Maya Delmont , Taliyah Whitaker and Jahi Winston) watch the news and make witty remarks on the Earth’s rotation. At the same time, a group of “hipsters from Cleveland” (Selena Gomez, Austin Butler and Luka Sabbat) driving a “very George Romero” ride arrive at a motel and meet its doubtful manager (Larry Fessenden).
There are zombies (Iggy Pop and Sara Driver) who appear to be more interested in drinking coffee than in devouring people, and there’s a mysterious character who lives in the woods and mostly keeps to himself, but who will turn out to be more important than we thought. And then there’s an exceptional Tilda Swinton stealing every single scene she’s in as a delightfully absurd samurai/funeral home owner with the improbable, familiar-sounding name of Zelda Winston.
Unphased by the zombie apocalypse, Zelda seems to live in her own world. She moves at her own pace, slicing zombies in half with ease and precision while preserving her unnatural posture. She calls people by name and surname, she puts make-up on dead bodies while uttering macabre jokes to herself in a wonderful Scottish accent and she gives us the weirdest and most compelling scenes of the movie by bringing a whole new genre to the equation.
Just like Hermit Bob and in line with Jarmusch’s best tradition, Zelda is an outsider. She stands out from everyone else in ways we don’t always fully understand, she contributes to the movie’s alienating atmosphere and she is definitely one of the most intriguing, well-written, meaningful characters in the film.
The Dead Don’t Die is not for everyone. It defies most zombie genre conventions by bringing in new elements that won’t appear to make sense, at first. It gives you all the entertaining sequences, repetitive lines and atmospheric scenes Jarmusch is known for, but a high level of analysis is necessary for you to be able to fully understand its underlying message. It has an abundance of witty quotes, but it sometimes overdoes it with the social commentary. Its genuinely hilarious moments are sometimes overshadowed by scenes in which it tries too hard to please, some of its unpredictable twists are hard to embrace,and the ending definitely feels like a missed opportunity.
But if Jarmusch’s zombie comedy is not the director’s best film to date, it is also one of those movies that inexplicably grows on you. Days after you’ve seen it, you’ll find yourself thinking about its funniest moments and remembering the beautiful weirdness of it all. As imperfect as it is, this zombie comedy is a witty, quotable, ironic, clever film that winks at you with clever repetitions you won’t be able to get out of your head and keeps you entertained with superb performances and well-written dialogues. The Dead Don’t Die is one of those films that turns out to be very different from what you imagined it to be, and ultimately takes you along for a ride you won’t forget. And, once you stop trying to understand the meaning behind every single scene, it will all suddenly make sense.