To get it out of the way right up front: no, “The Dead Don’t Die” isn’t quite as fun as you might think when hearing the phrase “Jim Jarmusch zombie movie.” The picture – which boasts a cast that’s simply ridiculous in the amount of talent assembled – is a fairly lightweight affair, although it tackles some weighty and depressing realities, in Jarmusch’s oeuvre and it’s not one of his best films
That being said, it’s still a pretty good time, and in the spirit of George Romero’s zombie pictures – to which this movie makes no qualms whatsoever about being indebted – it involves a decent amount of social and political commentary. If the concept of a movie about brain dead zombies consuming everything in their path at a time when Donald Trump is president – the town’s token bigot (Steve Buscemi) wears a red hat that says “Keep America White Again” – doesn’t click with you thematically, well, I don’t know what to tell you.
At the film’s beginning, we are told by various talking heads that a phenomenon known as “polar fracking” has led to a realignment of the earth’s orbit and, as a result, daylight lasts much longer than usual and, oh yeah, the dead begin to rise from the earth. Among the zombies who rise from the grave are Carol Kane and Iggy Pop, who quickly get to munching on the inhabitants of Centerville, a small upstate New York town where the film is set.
We meet a number of characters – a samurai undertaker (Tilda Swinton), two storeowners (Danny Glover and Caleb Landry Jones), Buscemi’s racist farmer, some teens (including Selena Gomez) traveling through from out of town, a motel owner (horror icon Larry Fessenden), a man who lives in the woods (Tom Waits), a UPS deliveryman (RZA), a newscaster (Rosie Perez) and three cops, the laconic Chief Cliff Robertson (Bill Murray), the speculative Ronnie (Adam Driver) and the nervous Mindy (Chloe Sevigny) – who will eventually become snacks to the hordes of living dead who overtake the town.
Although there are some genuinely creepy moments and some gory bloodletting, “The Dead Don’t Die” is mostly a comedy. There’s a hilarious recurring joke about whether two mutilated bodies in a diner were the result of wild animals, another in which Ronnie’s bleak pronouncements begin to drive Cliff crazy and a third so-annoying-it’s-funny gag regarding the film’s theme song, sung by Sturgill Simpson.
Not all of the jokes land. There’s a sequence that adds a science fiction element to the proceedings that literally drops out of nowhere and isn’t particularly satisfactory. And at several points, characters reference the script and Jim Jarmusch himself, which is funny at first, but then slightly overdone. I did have a laugh during a reference to another film in Driver’s repertoire.
Jarmusch’s previous films have led me to believe that he is a sardonic optimist, so it’s a little surprising that his latest film is such a bleak affair, despite its pessimism being well earned. As the film’s various characters battle off the living dead and eventual extinction, Jarmusch appears to be questioning whether humanity is even worth saving. Generationally, it’s interesting to see which characters he allows to survive.
So, while “The Dead Don’t Die” certainly qualifies as a minor – and extremely laid back – Jarmusch film, it’s still a good time. His previous film, “Paterson,” was his best in some time, so it’s OK if he wants to kick back with some friends – the film is a who’s who of previous collaborators – and have some fun enjoying the end of mankind. I know I did.