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The Dead Don’t Die

Jim Jarmusch’s zombie comedy THE DEAD DON’T DIE is… I mean, it’s a zombie comedy by Jim Jarmusch. Which is unexpected. When the trailer came out I couldn’t tell if they were trying to mislead us or if Jarmusch had made something totally different from his other movies. The answer is in the middle, leaning toward the first one. It feels closer to normal Jarmusch than to, like, SHAUN OF THE DEAD. It’s high on oddness and quirk, low on concept, plot structure or traditional resolution. Compared to ZOMBIELAND or TUCKER AND DALE or something the humor is bone dry and the pace is molasses slow.

But by LIMITS OF CONTROL standards it’s an action packed thrill-o-rama. It has a whole bunch of zombies digging out of graves like Thriller or RETURN OF THE LIVING DEAD, pulling out people’s intestines for a snack, and getting their heads chopped or blown off. They’re respectable zombies, too – o.g. slow shambling style, some personality to them, one played by Iggy Pop (DEAD MAN, THE CROW: CITY OF ANGELS). There’s one pretty distinctive touch in that they emit puffs of dust from their wounds. I imagine Jarmusch worked with more FX people on this than on all his other movies combined.

And its recognizably his humor. I can’t think of a movie he’s made that’s entirely serious the whole time, but this has gotta be the silliest I’ve ever seen him. Maybe because he really believes we’re doomed. I kinda loved it for a while.

In the small town of Centerville, Police Chief Cliff Robertson (Bill Murray, BROKEN FLOWERS, WILD THINGS) and Officer Ronnie Peterson (Adam Driver, PATERSON, J. EDGAR) are on The Case of the Missing Chicken. Farmer Miller (Steve Buscemi, MYSTERY TRAIN, SPY KIDS 2) – known to the locals as a racist asshole – has accused local forest-dweller Hermit Bob (Tom Waits, DOWN BY LAW, MYSTERY MEN) of stealing his chicken. Well, Hermit Bob is a nut, but he didn’t do it. The truth is that the earth is off its axis and that’s causing all kinds of weird shit like animals disappearing, watches stopping and the sun not rising or falling when it’s supposed to.

The first chunk of the movie is about Cliff and Robbie and the other characters going through a couple days where everything seems off and ominous. They’re very deadpan and unemotional about reality being out of whack and and just worry about normal things like if they should stop for coffee and donuts. There’s a long stretch where it always looks like it’s early evening when the sun is just starting to go down, but they know it’s actually late. I found it genuinely unnerving.

It’s an adorable little town, population 738, where everybody listens to old radios and hangs out at an amazing looking diner run by Fern (Eszter Balint, star of STRANGER THAN PARADISE). Hank Thompson (man I love Danny Glover, PREDATOR 2) owns the hardware store and Danny Perkins (Larry Fessenden, ANIMAL FACTORY) manages the motel. There are apparently enough kids and passing road trippers to support Bobby Wiggins’ (Caleb Landry Jones, THE FLORIDA PROJECT) cool little novelty/horror memorabilia shop that he runs out of the gas station.

Less quaint is the nearby juvenile detention center where we get to know three teenagers, Stella (Maya Delmont), Olivia (Taliyah Whitaker, ROXANNE ROXANNE) and Geronimo (Jahi Winston, PROUD MARY). Two of the three are black and all seem to be smarter than the adults and authorities, both in realizing what’s going on and in trying to protect themselves. Yet they live, without complaint or explanation, locked in this stark building, bossed around by huge white musclemen who not quite affectionately call them “clowns” and “bozos.” It’s a nice casual presentation of our fucked up criminal justice system that I’m sure Farmer Miller thinks is too lenient.

Hermit Bob seems less of the real world than those kids do – he’s surprisingly similar to the character Waits played in THE BALLAD OF BUSTER SCRUGGS – but he might illustrate some of Jarmusch’s world view. I assumed he was not long for this world, that he was like the guy who pokes the meteor in THE BLOB, or at best a doomsayer like the laughing cemetery man in TEXAS CHAIN SAW or Crazy Ralph in FRIDAY THE 13TH. But he ends up lasting the whole movie and, due to his connection to the natural world (he goes around looking at ant hills and talking to mushrooms) is able to recognize the coming catastrophe better than anyone.

The all-star cast goes deeper still. Chloe Sevigny (THE LAST DAYS OF DISCO) is an officer who responds to the bad shit with more human emotion than the others. Carol Kane (TREE’S LOUNGE) is, when the movie begins, a dead body. Rosie Perez (NIGHT ON EARTH) is an anchor on the local news. RZA (COFFEE AND CIGARETTES) plays a “Wu-P.S. driver” named Dean, which is a bigger if less iconic role than the “Camouflage Samurai” who says “power equality” to Ghost Dog and gives him a pound. As a fan of RZA’s work and persona as Abbot of the Wu-Tang Clan I loved that Bobby nervously asks him for some wisdom and he comes up with a little fortune cookie line that’s treated as a great philosophy/riddle/poem.

The funniest and most significant character I haven’t mentioned yet is the town’s new undertaker Zelda Winston (Tilda Swinton, BROKEN FLOWERS, CONSTANTINE), who looks like a cross between Legolas and Gollum, asks strange questions, carries a samurai sword and is ready for what’s happening.

There are some questionable meta conceits here. Ronnie (SPOILER I guess?) keeps saying he has a feeling “this isn’t gonna end well,” and occasionally lets slip that it’s because they’re actors and he’s read the script. Every time it happens it’s kinda dumb and kinda funny. My favorite is the first time, when Cliff wonders why the song on the radio (“The Dead Don’t Die” by Sturgill Simpson) is so familiar, and Ronnie says “Well, because it’s the theme song.” I think they could’ve left it at him just wondering why it was familiar, though, and we’d get it.

Worse (because it’s more common in a normal zombie comedy), they keep making reference to NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD. And you know I love that movie but if Jarmusch doesn’t know there are over ten million zombie movies and somehow fifteen million of them reference George Romero, then it’s a rare case of him being out of touch in a way that’s not cool. Selena Gomez (SPRING BREAKERS) plays a “hipster” (according to the motel manager) who stops at the gas station and I know Gomez is good because she really sells a line where she seems intrigued by Bobby and says, “Your film knowledge is impressive” just because he mentioned Romero.

I liked that character and was intrigued to see where the story of her and her friends was going, and then… well, this is not the sort of movie where things are going somewhere. Let’s put it that way. It raises expectations of a traditionally satisfying story that is just not gonna happen here today.

I don’t think anybody mentions DAWN OF THE DEAD, but the movie borrows its zombies-as-consumers symbolism, and really spells it out and underlines it more than anyone could possibly want. I can partly forgive what old news all that is it because the shot where a line of zombies are stumbling along lit by the glow of their cell phones does bring the idea up to date. But when the movie ended with narration about zombies being materialists I winced a little.

But at the times when THE DEAD DON’T DIE was working I felt like it really captured the terror of this moment. There is one specific reference to Trump: Farmer Miller’s “KEEP AMERICA WHITE AGAIN” hat. I love that it says the quiet part out loud while also being grammatically incorrect. But to me the movie is less about the specific harm of Trump’s actions than what will become of the world without serious people actually trying to solve problems. I don’t know if Jarmusch intends a direct metaphor, but there’s a pretty obvious climate change parallel. Something called “polar fracking” has caused this catastrophe, so the energy companies and “the authorities” are denying that it’s even a problem. Everyone has a sense of doom but also just kind of tries to go on with their regular lives. The sky even reminded me at times of the apocalyptic days we seem to have every summer now when the sun is blocked by wildfire smoke. Even the silly meta shit feeds into this interpretation, because we’ve seen the script. We know “this doesn’t end well.” But we don’t know what to do other than act it out.

Although I didn’t like THE DEAD DON’T DIE very much, I couldn’t name a movie that comes closer to capturing the way 2019 feels. Everything is insane and stupid and we feel helpless to do anything but make jokes. Even our great artists are like “I don’t know, I guess I’ll make one of those zombie comedies?”

This entry was posted on Wednesday, July 3rd, 2019 at 10:01 am and is filed under Comedy/Laffs, Horror, Reviews. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can skip to the end and leave a response. Pinging is currently not allowed.

18 Responses to “The Dead Don’t Die”

  1. I thought people were gonna say I was reaching to argue the metacommentary was essentially Jarmusch not being able to give a shit about his dumb zombie movie because the real world seems to be maybe ending, because can a movie artistically justify being half-assed? Pleasantly surprised to see you and many others seem to be on roughly the same page.

  2. This is the first review that has given me even a glimmer of hope that this might be tolerable, which is great, because there’s no possible way I’ll be able to not see it.

  3. The trailer reminded me of when the cool kids got together and performed a skit in the high school talent show and us plebes were supposed to be so overwhelmed with gratitude that our betters had deigned to slum it for our amusement by phoning in a bunch of borrowed jokes and wacky costumes. Sure, they’re stealing all the thunder from the people who actually give a shit about this kind of thing, but will you look at that? The guys on the football team are wearing cheerleader uniforms! You don’t normally see them doing that! That’s pure genius in their opinion!

  4. Sheesh, by the reactions of you guys one could think that this is one of those low budget indie flicks, that are directed by some podcaster who fills his movies with a synthie score and references to 80s horror movies, keeps bragging about the practical effects in his movie in every damn interview and has the nerd blogosphere hyping it as “the next cult classic”, although it will be buried on Shudder soon and completely forgotten by the end of the year. I mean, yeah, I too was annoyed by the trailer and how it tried to sell it as some kind of ZOMBIELAND romp for teens, although it was a new Jarmusch movie and we all know what they are like. But it was a new Jarmusch movie, so yay!?

  5. Yeah I have to say I 100% had the same reaction as Mr. M upon seeing the trailer. It looks like a zombie parody made by people who don’t like or care about zombie movies and figure if they can make critically claimed art movies, of course they can make a zombie movie better than some genre huckster, probably without even really trying.

    This review is the first thing I’ve read which makes me think maybe it’s only superficially a zombie, and maybe not trying to parody the form so much as using it as a thin veneer to get at something different (although, uh, it still sounds like it’s using it as a thin veneer to get at the same things zombie films already get at, and maybe Jarmusch doesn’t even know it?)

  6. It’s ok. It’s just the beginning of the end of humanity. At least we can talk about it on the internet. Ok, I’m gonna go finish SCREAM 3, even tho I think it’s the worst.

  7. The end of the world loams large in Jarmusch’s mind recently. It was one of the main preoccupations of the protagonists in ONLY LOVERS LEFT ALIVE. Quite a few scenes about the knowing the bad times are coming, noting which places have water (of Detroit: this place is going to BLOOM) vs. those that’ll vanish. Remembering how good we used to taste, before we wrecked the environment. In that movie it came across as oddly optimistic: they’ve seen things fall apart before, and endured it. The lovers will prevail. They always do.

    Interested to see if he feels the same way about this cast of characters. I was curious, but now this movie has my attention!

  8. I’m never going to pass up a Jim Jarmusch movie, even if this one looks phoned in. A couple of years ago I watched every one of his films, and there are so few American filmmakers capable of doing his own weird thing at the level he does it. He truly is one of the greats, and Paterson was top tier Jarmusch, so I’m okay with him following it up with something a little goofy.

  9. Great review. The “holding a mirror up to the U.S. in 2019” interpretation almost makes it sound like it’d make a good double feature with Logan, albeit maybe like 1/100th as entertaining.

  10. Jareth Cutestory

    July 7th, 2019 at 9:01 am

    Jarmusch has always made genre films. I’d have thought that ONLY LOVERS LEFT ALIVE would have put to bed any misgivings someone might have had that he couldn’t bring anything specifically to the horror genre. Maybe the world didn’t like that film as much as I did.

    I remember when STRANGER THAN PARADISE and DOWN BY LAW were subject to critical reviews that often suggested perhaps the “plebes” shouldn’t be allowed to make films. He’s always been on the outside of whatever side there was. I’m having a hard time imagining him as being part of the establishment that the phrase “cool kids” seems to imply. I don’t know. Is this what happens when a bunch of your stuff is put on the Criterion Collection?

  11. Jarmusch was one of the first celebrity guest stars on SPONGEBOB. What a sell out.

  12. Jareth, you’re not alone in your favor for Only Lovers Left Alive. I love that movie and share your skepticism re: Jarmusch as some cooler-than-thou asshole. It gives me a kick to think he made both a vampire movie and a zombie movie within 5 years of each other, and at this point in his career. Maybe he’ll round it out with a werewolf movie someday.

  13. My heart goes out to anyone who went in with the expectation that Jim Jarmusch would deliver anything resembling a regular zombie movie. I am sorry that they did not do their homework on this guy.

    The film that put him on the map, 1984’s STRANGER THAN PARADISE, centered around a young Hungarian woman (played, as Vern points out, by Eszter Balint) who makes a trip to the US to visit family, only to be put in one cramped room after another (apartment, hotel room), and goes to a tourist attraction that is rendered invisible by a snowstorm. So she has come to America but doesn’t really get to see much of it.

    A more recent film of his, THE LIMITS OF CONTROL, was about a man who appears to be a spy of some kind, following a series of clues that mainly involve him going to different cities only to sit down each time for a monologue by a familiar character actor playing some eccentric who gives him the next clue. It appears to be leading to some kind of grand climax that, having seen STRANGER THAN PARADISE, I was pretty sure would not occur. He finally manages to infiltrate the bad guy’s fortress through some method not shown to the viewer, and when the bad guy asks how he did it, replies “I used my imagination.”

    The point is, Jim Jarmusch makes weird ironic deadpan comedies whose effect often comes from deliberately frustrating the audience’s expectations.

    People maybe had less of a problem with that back before social media made every work of narrative storytelling into a political football, and before organized fandom became militant about defending genre conventions.

    But indie does not automatically mean serious or political. Any thought of this being a serious movie can perhaps be dispelled by the fact that Rosie Perez plays a character named Posie Juarez.

    Jarmusch isn’t Spike Lee – if anything he’s a more serious Kevin Smith. And THE DEAD DON’T DIE seems to be his JAY AND SILENT BOB STRIKE BACK – an excuse to round up the gang of actor friends he’s accumulated since his black-and-white days to have a bit of a self-indulgent lark. (If you didn’t notice, the marquee cast of this film is made up largely of actors who’ve worked with Jim Jarmusch before.)

    With all that’s happening in the world now, I get wanting to see a pessimistic or nihilistic political message in this movie, but despite Buscemi’s hat I didn’t really see this movie as being any more despairing than, say, RETURN OF THE LIVING DEAD or any other zombie movie I can think of that ends with the world ruined.

    In fact my response was the opposite – Jarmusch has complained for years about how increasingly hard it is to get truly independent films financed and distributed. Yet in 2019, in the Netflix and Amazon Prime era, he not only got another movie made, but a high-profile one with an all-star cast, using the zombie genre as a Trojan horse. That fills me with optimism that Jarmusches of this world will still survive.

    I saw this film as part of a local monthly cult horror series, organized and attended by hipster horror dudes who are more of the “Let’s have fun watching a crazy giallo” rather than “How dare this break the rules of the genre” philosophy.

    I went in with quiet amusement, because from Jarmusch I expected a slow, minimalist anti-movie and I wasn’t sure how this packed house would react to whatever Jarmusch had in store for us. But they laughed at all the jokes, and seemed to have a good time. And I did too.

    My favorite joke was when the Chloe Sevigny character is assigned to “crowd control” at the crime scene, even though the “crowd” is just three people hanging around not really doing anything.

  14. I got nothing against Jarmusch, who I’m hit or miss on, making a zombie movie. I just think this particular zombie movie looks really lame, and the reason it looks lame is that I’m getting serious COFFEE & CIGARETTE vibes. That’s another movie where Jarmusch got his famous buddies to come over and fuck around while the audience footed the bill. Barring the amazing Wu Tang/Bill Murray scene, that movie pretty much killed my interest in Jarmusch as a filmmaker. In general, I don’t like Andy Kaufman humor where the joke is on the audience for sitting through it. I don’t begrudge anyone for liking it but to me it seems the very definition of too cool for school. Once I recognized this instinct in Jarmusch, I never went back. And from the sounds of it, there isn’t much for me in his later work. In general, I’m a fan of movie where stuff, you know, happens.

    Which is a bummer, because it’s long been a dream of mine to see Bill Murray play the sheriff in a monster movie. But not like this. Not like this.

  15. Jarmusch has always been a bit of a name-dropper. Recent example: Only Lovers Left Alive–The male vampire is giving a tour of Detroit to his old girlfriend “There’s the house that Jack White grew up in…” Why would someone 2000-years-old give a fuck who Jack White was, let alone, where he grew up? Because the director dropped something…

    Yet, like all his stuff, that movie had a lot that was worthwhile within it, but like all his stuff there’s going to be a few cringes and eye-rolls to get all of it.

  16. COFFEE & CIGARETTES can be compared to a musicians compilation of B-sides, since the movie consisted mostly of short films that he shot years before its release, with a few new ones. It’s completely unnecessary to release it, even more to buy it, but it’s good enough and really enjoyable, if you never heard the songs before.

    All in all I never got a “Too cool for school” vibe from Jarmusch. More a “I do my thing and maybe someone likes it, but if not, that’s okay” one. Like a folk singer, who doesn’t do much more than sitting on a stool, playing a few basic chords on his guitar and mumble most of his lyrics, because that’s all he can do, but he does it well and for some reason it made him a household name.

    I think I mention this every time we discuss him, but I keep forgetting how much I like his movies, until I watch them. When a new trailer comes out, my first reaction is usually “Ugh, this looks so boring” (Again: Shoutout to this movie’s marketing department for making it almost look like something that multiplex audiences would enjoy) and it takes me usually years to finally put them in my player, but then they normally entertain me from the beginning to the end.

    Now I don’t mind if anybody doesn’t like his movies, but especially compared to today’s indie scene, he never seemed like someone who tried too hard. “Having his friends come over and fuck around” seemed like his modus operandi from the beginning, only that over the years his friends became more famous and marketable.

  17. I’m glad people are mentioning COFFEE AND CIGARETTES. After I posted my comment I was kicking myself for not including that one as an additional example of what you’re in for with a Jim Jarmusch movie. Yes, that’s an anthology of short vignettes of different name actors having coffee and shooting the bull.

    If you hate that movie – or even the idea of it – then yeah, you might be better off skipping THE DEAD DON’T DIE. I enjoyed it but it is arguably COFFEE AND CIGARETTES AND ZOMBIES.

  18. Jareth Cutestory

    July 14th, 2019 at 7:22 am

    Fair enough, Majestyk. The date I took to see COFFEE & CIGARETTES described it as “even more of a circle jerk than BLUE IN THE FACE.” I’m often as bored by narrative film as you are fed up with soulless remakes, so I found both films quite refreshing. Maybe, like her, GHOST DOG comes closer to hitting that sweet spot for you, though she still called that film “too dispassionate.” That’s the curse of Jarmusch.

    CURSE OF JARMUSCH is going to be the title of the werewolf film that psychic_hits has volunteered to finance.

    Still, your description of cool kids putting on a show strikes me more as a Tim Burton thing or even a Rob Zombie thing than a Jarmusch thing. Jarmusch would be under the bleachers smoking a cigarette.

    If it’s any consolation, the gore in THE DEAD DON’T DIE is pretty good. The film gets nasty.

    CJ: Surely Jarmusch atoned for Sponge Bob by being the first guest on FISHING WITH JOHN.

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