Jim Jarmusch is sick of zombies. “What’s cool about a zombie?” He asks during an interview with Rolling Stone. “They’re lifeless forms. They’re soulless humanoids. They’re an excuse.” It’s not a surprising take from a humanist like Jarmusch, given that much of the filmmaker-musician’s leisurely paced filmography couldn’t be more different from George A. Romero’s Night of the Living Dead (1968). Jarmusch’s last film, Paterson (2016), starred Adam Driver as the titular bus driver who finds poetic inspiration in the conversations around his daily routes — both on and off the job. Broken Flowers (2005), follows a perpetual bachelor (Bill Murray) as he searches for the adult son he didn’t know he had. The rest of Jarmusch’s oeuvre isn’t far off from this vibe: stories about lonely people parsing their lonely situations, featuring poignant observations about humanity and the world around them. Of course Jarmusch is sick of zombies — he clearly loves humans. There’s the problem, though: This firm anti-zombie stance coincides with Jarmusch’s latest feature, the zombie comedy The Dead Don’t Die.
At its outset, The Dead Don’t Die feels like any other Jim Jarmusch film. Centerville, Penn., police officers Ron and Cliff (Adam Driver and Bill Murray, respectively) confront an oddball drifter named Hermit Bob (Tom Waits), the three of them taking part in an amusing bit of deadpan about missing chickens before Ron and Cliff head back to their tiny, three-desk police station. From there, the film hops back and forth between a diner, a motel, a gas station-turned-comic shop, a juvenile detention center, and a funeral home, with each location showcasing Centreville’s peculiar Twin Peaks-y residents as they try to make sense of the increasingly strange occurrences in their small town.
This loose, free-floating style will feel familiar to Jarmusch fans accustomed to the director’s frequent use of interconnected vignettes in place of traditional plot points — Mystery Train (1989), Night on Earth (1991), and Coffee and Cigarettes (2003) all follow a similar method. This laid-back approach to storytelling lets conversations breathe, allows the plot (however ephemeral it may be) to develop organically, and keeps the world of the film chugging along at a pace not dissimilar from the world beyond the darkened movie theater. This is something Jarmusch often expresses an interest in — keeping the pace of his films at or around that of the real world — and The Dead Don’t Die is no exception.
The faces, too, will be familiar to Jarmusch fans. In addition to Driver, Murray, and Waits, The Dead Don’t Die uses other frequent Jarmusch collaborators: Tilda Swinton (who portrays a Scottish samurai-sword-wielding mortician); Chloë Sevigny (who works alongside Driver and Murray’s characters at the police station and serves as the resident scream queen); Steve Buscemi (having some fun as a curmudgeonly farmer sporting a “Keep America White Again” cap); Eszter Balint (as Fern, the stereotypical diner owner, collared dress and all); Rosie Perez (playing a newscaster tasked with all the expository dialogue); RZA (as a delivery man for “Wu-PS”); and Iggy Pop and Sara Driver (who appear briefly as a pair of coffee-loving zombies). These actors, working together with new faces like Danny Glover, Caleb Landry Jones, and Selena Gomez, are all more than willing to go along with whatever Jarmusch’s script has in store for them.
Given that the structure is typical Jarmusch and most of the cast is Jarmusch-friendly, why does The Dead Don’t Die stick out like a sore thumb — or, rather, a rotting arm from the ground — compared to the rest of the filmmaker’s oeuvre? The script is definitely the problem. It’s self-aware and it’s angry. As a movie lover himself, Jarmusch’s films often dive head-first into genre. Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai (1999) audaciously embraces the best parts of both martial-arts movies and gangster movies. Only Lovers Left Alive (2014) isn’t afraid to be an unapologetic vampire romance. One would assume that The Dead Don’t Die would do the same with zombie movies. Unfortunately, this isn’t the case — instead of paying homage to the genre or, more adventurously, taking it to new heights (or depths), the only zombie movie the director is all that interested in emulating is George A. Romero’s foundational 1968 film (and, to a lesser degree, his 1978 sequel, Dawn of the Dead). This isn’t just an assumption: Characters openly discuss Night of the Living Dead and Romero, sometimes going as far as to directly quote from the film. This runs directly into a filmmaking rule of thumb: References to unimpeachable classics make audiences wish they were watching that movie instead of the one they’re in the middle of. The Dead Don’t Die functions as an affectionate tribute to Night, to be sure, but it mostly just elicits a longing for the original zombocalyptic recipe.
Taking this surface-level zombie-movie self-awareness a step further, a few characters within The Dead Don’t Die are actually conscious of the fact that they’re just actors in a movie. Every time Sturgill Simpson’s title track plays, characters comment on it being the movie’s theme song and how tired they are of hearing it. Ron takes every opportunity he can get to remind his colleagues that “this isn’t going to end well.” (Ron also carries around a Star Wars keychain.) Even the decision for a humanist like Jarmusch to make a zombie movie feels somewhat meta — the man who loves (and has hope in) humanity has made a film about the undead reclaiming the Earth. It all feels a bit too contrived, as if Jarmusch had run out of ideas and didn’t know how to wrap up the story.
The Dead Don’t Die doesn’t completely flatline, but it can’t really function without life support. It’s obvious that Jarmusch is no longer comfortable with the apolitical stance that characterized his past films. Underneath the metafiction, there’s a palpable sense of outrage and frustration at the government, another key component of The Dead Don’t Die that feels very un-Jarmusch. In an early scene, three pre-teens at the Centerville Detention Center — it’s probably not a coincidence that the abbreviation “CDC” also stands for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention — gather around the TV as a news broadcast explains that polar fracking has knocked the Earth off its axis. They talk about the gravity of the situation and about their fear for the world, only to be sent back to their rooms by a couple of uncaring corrections officers while politicians and their mouthpieces on the news insist there’s nothing to worry about. Buscemi’s racist farmer gripes about country music, trespassers, and even his dog Rumsfeld, offering a clear satire of Trump supporters. Even the children of Centerville harbor a deep-seated misanthropy, swearing at strangers as they pass by.
As evidenced by these numerous departures, The Dead Don’t Die is not a typical Jarmusch movie. Normally, one would not leave one of the director’s films wondering what it all means — everything the filmmaker wants to say can often be found right there in the dialogue. That’s not the case here; Jarmusch’s wide array of targets means there’s almost too much to consider after one departs the theater. Is the filmmaker saying that children are the future, that this younger generation contained within the walls of the CDC are humanity’s only hope? Or is he insisting that we’re all slaves to our possessions, each one of us zombies going through the motions of our daily lives in search of more stuff? It’s possible that Jarmusch intentionally left these questions unanswered, the loose ends suggesting that there’s still time to avoid our civilization’s looming bad ending.
Despite the shortcomings that accompany the director’s many risks, The Dead Don’t Die isn’t a complete failure. For every creative decision that falls flat, there’s a visual gag or bit of dialogue that delivers. It would be near-impossible for a Jarmusch film with a cast this talented to be a total bust. Their chemistry is infectious, especially with Adam Driver and Swinton doing much of the heavy lifting. Sure, audiences might not be laughing out loud at every beat, but Jarmusch’s pitch-black deadpan frequently elicits the kind of laughter that manifests itself as a quick exhale through the nose. In the end, maybe this is what The Dead Don’t Die is supposed to leave the viewer with: memories of those little puffs of air, a reminder that, unlike the undead citizens of Centerville, we’re still alive and breathing.