Writer/director Jim Jarmusch's descent into genre filmmaking now complete, what's next — Marvel movies? While The Dead Don't Die is a zombie movie, don't be fooled. It's still a Jarmusch film, and that means the dead are more deadpan. What we have here is satire, a lost art in 2019 since the world is already a Swiftian nightmare. Would a zombie apocalypse wake us up? Jarmusch doesn't think so.
Set in Centerville, USA, "a real nice place," The Dead Don't Die assembles some of the director's favorite actors in a sleepy, small-town setting where nothing ever happens. But the news tells us things are getting weird. Polar fracking has disturbed the earth's rotation. Darkness comes in the middle of the day, the sun shines at night, and the dead come back to life.
Our heroes are scattered across town, Jarmuschian all-stars the lot of them. Chief Cliff (Bill Murray, Broken Flowers) and Officer Ronnie (Adam Driver, Paterson) patrol the streets while Officer Mindy (Chloë Sevigny, Ten Minutes Older: The Trumpet) holds it down at HQ. The strange new mortician, Zelda Winston (Tilda Swinton, Only Lovers Left Alive), dances with her samurai sword at the funeral home. Farmer Miller (Steve Buscemi, Mystery Train) is up in arms over a missing chicken. Hermit Bob (Tom Waits, Down By Law) notices strange happenings in the woods. And RZA (Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai) appears as a "WuPS" delivery man.
Meanwhile, even more characters are introduced. Selena Gomez plays a "hipster" traveling through town with two friends (Austin Butler, Luka Sabbat). Caleb Landry Jones runs the local gas station/comic store. Danny Glover, Carol Kane, and Rosie Perez also appear in small roles, and, the pièce de résistance — Iggy Pop cameos as the first zombie to emerge from the grave.
The fun of The Dead Don't Die is the ensemble, most of whom you'd never see in a zombie movie. The story needs them, because, while it is a comedy, it's also incredibly stupid. Jarmusch gets right to the point. The zombie apocalypse is staring everyone in the face, but they all have delayed reaction times. No one seems to believe what they're seeing. In fact, some of them even know they're in a movie. That might explain some of the indifference. The director uses the classic, lumbering zombie image — with plenty of nods to George Romero — to hammer home the main point: People won't react to global crises until it eats their faces off.
Jarmusch's vampire film, Only Lovers Left Alive, is a movie of somber ambiance, but The Dead Don't Die has very little horror in it. There's lots of gore, and lenser Frederick Elmes's work is as beautiful as ever, but the terror is missing. The satire completely zaps the film of any urgency. In that sense, the film is a parody of itself. It's about a looming threat to the human race, but the threat itself isn't even scary. Nevertheless, Jarmusch's point is well-taken, and his cast rules. We'll take it as a comedy. The director is throwing his hands up at the Trump era like the rest of us. The Dead Don't Die isn't one of the director's essential films, but it's definitely his most absurd. It's a sign of the times.