Tilda Swinton’s sword-wielding Scottish mortician reanimates a lethargic Jim Jarmusch zombie comedy that has more brains than bite.
Jim Jarmusch’s recent preoccupation with life at the end of the world (and the cultural decay that comes with it) arrives at an amusingly literal conclusion in “The Dead Don’t Die,” a sluggish but knowing zombie comedy that rearranges the bones of “The Night of the Living Dead” into a resigned lament for a society on the brink of collapse. And while exhuming George Romero’s metaphor-heavy corpus might seem like too obvious a choice in our current age of smart phones and stupid presidents, this (un)deadpan apocalypse makes that obviousness the point.
We all know — to quote a line from the film — that “Nothing is happening normally right now,” but it’s hard not to be paralyzed by the absurdity of it all. If Jarmusch’s latest often feels as though it lacks a pulse, this star-studded parable is held together by one consistent truth: When Hell is full, the dead will walk the Earth. And when the Earth is fucked, the living will do whatever they can to sleepwalk through the nightmare.
Topical and anachronistic in almost equal measure, “The Dead Don’t Die” is set in the sleepy burg of Centerville, USA (named after a location from Frank Zappa’s “200 Motels,” and played to small-town perfection by Fleischmanns, New York), where red shades of Trumpism have cropped up in a place that otherwise hasn’t changed much in the last 50 years. Centerville is home to 723 people, and this film’s scattershot first act sometimes instills the fear that Jarmusch is going to make us say an awkward hello to each and every one of them; it’s the only legitimate scare in a story that doesn’t even try to compete with the real-life horrors that it underlines.
If “The Dead Don’t Die” has protagonists, they would have to be the three intrepid members of the Centerville police force: Chief Cliff Robertson (Bill Murray), his successor Ronnie Peterson (a wonderfully unruffled Adam Driver), and the squeamish Mindy Morrison (Chlöe Sevigny, winsome in a scream queen role that needed to be more fleshed out to feel anything but retrograde). The cops literally drive the narrative, and the chemistry between them generates almost enough energy to sustain the movie on its own, even before Jarmusch gilds the lily with a funny self-reflexive streak. There usually isn’t all that much crime in Centerville, and so law enforcement tends to spend most of their time resolving squabbles between an asshole farmer (Steve Buscemi sporting a “Make America White Again” hat) and Hermit Bob, the local kook (Tom Waits, whose free-range hair makes him look like a demented cross between the prospector from “The Ballad of Buster Scruggs” and the aliens from “Battlefield Earth”).
Other residents include comics store clerk Bobby Wiggins (Caleb Landry Jones), kind-hearted mechanic Hank Thompson (Danny Glover), and a “WU-PS” driver who’s naturally played by Dean, and appears on screen for just long enough to deliver the film’s basic plea for humanity to put down their phones and give the future a chance. “The world is perfect,” he says, “appreciate the details.” If not for the three clever mixed-race teens who are stuck in the town’s juvenile detention center, that message would fall on deaf ears. Not quite last — and far from least — is Zelda Wintson, Centerville’s new mortician. A mysterious Scottish immigrant with an affinity for samurai swords and some very unusual taste in postmortem makeup design, Zelda is obviously played by Tilda Swinton, and her delightful performance shoots the movie full of fresh embalming fluid every time it starts to rot. Which is often.
courtesy of Cannes
Lethargic even by Jarmusch’s unhurried standards, “The Dead Don’t Die” is best appreciated as an antidote to the aimless melodrama of “The Walking Dead.” Besides the end of the world, almost nothing of note happens in this movie. The apocalypse — broadly telegraphed with the help of a concerned television news anchor (Rosie Perez as Posie Juarez), some loose chatter about the manmade evils of “polar fracking,” and a few lo-fi effects shots of the moon glowing purple — is obvious enough to make most of the characters shrug at the inevitable. Officer Peterson seems to know that he’s in a zombie movie, and spends most of his time muttering that things aren’t going to end well. A trio of carefree youths (headlined by a very meme-able Selena Gomez) roll into town as if to provide fresh meat and prove his point. The whole film is stuck in a daze; one that comes without the blissed out surrender of “Only Lovers Left Alive.”
The movie, like most of its supporting cast, only climbs off the coroner’s table after 45 minutes or so, at which point it’s greatly enhanced by Jarmusch’s wry take on the undead. In stark contrast to the faceless hordes that typify the genre, the zombies in “The Dead Don’t Die” are all individual characters with clear personal desires that extend beyond their general interest in eating human flesh. These moaning bags of old meat are motivated by the things they loved while they were alive — the material pleasures that distracted them from existential threats like climate change, populism, and the online discourse around “Game of Thrones” — and they chant about them to the point of self-identification, like lobotomized Pokémon repeating their own names.
Iggy Pop, who appears to be playing himself, busts into the Centerville diner and groans about “coffee.” Zombie Carol Kane demands “chardonnay.” Country singer Sturgill Simpson, who (de)composed and performs the film’s on-the-nose theme song, cameos as a ghoul who loves his “guitar.” A lot of the zombies hold iPhones; one wants Xanax. You get the joke. Very few of the gags inspire more than a light chuckle, which isn’t great in a movie where the same could be said of the major characters. But visualized together in Frederick Elmes’ dreamy and playful day-for-night cinematography, they collect into a morbidly amusing condemnation of a society that — to quote from the holy book of Hermit Bob — “sold its soul for a Gameboy.”
As always, the things we own end up owning us; the only new wrinkle here is the idea that everyone seems to have burned their receipts. In Jarmusch’s view, the modern world has internalized its myopia as more of a feature than a bug, and it won’t be long until we’re all forced to reap what we’ve sown. To his boss’ great annoyance, Peterson likes to say that “This ain’t gonna end well, chief.” Watching “The Dead Don’t Die” crawl out of the grave and limp around for 100 minutes, it might start to seem as though it’s already over.
“The Dead Don’t Die” premiered in Competition at the 2019 Cannes Film Festival. Focus Features will release it in theaters on June 14.