How many filmmakers honestly have a distinct style that when their name is attached to a film—no matter the genre—audiences know what they’re going to get?Jim Jarmusch is one of those directors, a master of slacker hangout cinema who, somewhere along the way,made friends with the original slacker, Bill Murray. Murray’s lassiez faire acting style blended well with Jarmusch’s Generation X apathy, and it has led to a fruitful relationship for both of them. THE DEAD DON’T DIE is a genre film. It’s a zombie film. But above all it is a Jim Jarmusch film, and if you walk into the theater knowing that, you’re going to get exactly what you want.
THE DEAD DON’T DIE is weird and, refreshingly, not a dour or bleak as The Walking Dead or typical zombie films. It could be argued that the zombie film, particularly those dealing with social and political issues, lived and died with George Romero—at least with his classic LIVING DEAD trilogy. Romero tackled issues of race, class, consumerism, and particularly in 1978’s DAWN OF THE DEAD, placed the horror in a very real world. It’s hard to tell if Jarmusch is making a commentary on Trump supporters, climate change or if, as the zombies stare blankly at their phones or muttering “Wifi” to themselves, is he’s just an old man yelling at a cloud like so many Simpsons memes have told us. Jarmusch—technically a baby boomer—may not the be the voice of Generation X, but he’s certainly one of the most notable. His films are hangout films, less concerned about an overall arc and more concerned with spending time with the characters then actually getting to know the characters. I imagine behind the scenes on his films, the atmosphere is very relaxed-almost an excuse to simply hang out with his friends—and that vibe translates to the screen.
Adam Driver and Bill Murray are cops in the small east coast town of Centereville; it’s lush, green, and seems like a nice place to live. It’s revealed early on that polar fracking has set the Earth off its axis, which is causing longer days and longer nights—and making the dead to come back to life. When the mayhem begins, Jarmusch enjoys playing within the genre, never really turning tropes on their head or even parodying them, but instead leaning into them: undead hands emerge from graves, zombies shuffle through the streets, and Danny Glover fends off a zombie horde by barricading himself in a hardware store. Watching the film, it’s hard to tell how much of the humor and odd character choices are Jarmusch’s script, and how much is him letting his actors go wild: Tilda Swinton is an undertaker who is a master with a katana, not so great with a makeup brush, and for one reason or another, Scottish. Knowing the reputation of both the actress and the filmmaker, it’s easy to imagine Swinton showing up to set and saying “oh, by the way Jim, my character is Scottish now,” and Jarmusch simply responding, “cool.”
Driver and Murray play well with each other, delivering the dryly humorous dialogue with laidback panache. Silly sight gags abound, like Driver cruising around in a tiny drop-top smart car, zombie decapitations played for laughs, and Steve Buscemi in a red “Keep America White Again” ball cap. The film relies mostly on the charm of the actors and the audience’s willingness to be charmed by the presence of the RZA, Tom Waits, or the inspired casting of Iggy Pop as a zombie.And casting Iggy Pop as a zombie is admittedly very charming.
THE DEAD DON’T DIE doesn’t offer much new to the zombie film, in terms of story but really, after Romero, what is there to say that hasn’t been said countless times? It is comforting to be living in a world where Jim Jarmusch made a zombie film. At times it feels like it’s trying to make a grander statement, but Dead is at its best when it’s laid back, and for most of the run time inspiredly silly. It’s exactly what you should expect from a Jim Jarmusch zombie flick.