Polar fracking has thrown the Earth off its axis — a pretty big deal that most of the people of Centreville are barely taking in. In this small, peaceful town of 738 inhabitants, everyone sticks to their easy routine. Political differences and environmental disasters alike are easily set aside, not necessarily out of ignorance, but rather because big events and ideas seem to have little impact on the everyday lives of all involved. That is, until zombies start popping out of the ground.
In 2014, Jarmusch’s vampire film Only Lovers Left Alive showed his keen interest in the macabre. In 2016, the director demonstrated a real eye for the poetry and serenity of small-town America in Paterson. In its earlier moments, The Dead Don’t Die juxtaposes these two somewhat contrary passions to great comic, absurd, and somewhat disturbing effect. When zombie Iggy Pop and zombie Sara Driver attack two women closing the local diner for the night, we see them tear through their flesh in realistic and gruesome detail. “What did you expect?”, the film’s still compositions and slow editing style seem to tell us, and none of us can deny that zombie flesh eating is a nasty business. But whether that observation is amusing or original enough to sustain an entire scene will depend on the patience of the viewer — and, it soon turns out, on how much they care about the metatextual significance of Mr. Pop and Jarmusch’s other famous friends.
The Dead Don’t Die self-consciously interrupts its already tough going flow several times with references to Donald Trump, to its cast’s status in popular culture, and — most awkwardly of all — to its own nature as a scripted film. These latter winks at the audience could almost work if they weren’t so few and far between; as such, the gimmick comes across as a rather lazy afterthought.
Adam Driver’s predictably scintillating performance as a policeman with an oddly calm reaction to these earth-shattering events (“I’m just dealing with it in my own way”) mercifully raises the pulse of his many scenes with Bill Murray, whose tired act of po-faced resignation quickly becomes repetitive and tiresome.
With the deaths of many of the characters graphic yet, as is the film’s philosophy, never surprising, the ongoing slaughter of the cast feels oddly lethargic. Still, the film remains comparatively pleasant until an unnecessary final act in which our infrequent narrator Hermit Bob (Tom Waits) waxes lyrical about the damnation of the human race: perhaps our social-media obsessed capitalist selves have been zombies all along, he says. It isn’t the message itself that is the problem here — it has been a staple of zombie films at least since Dawn Of The Dead by George Romero, who too gets name-checked in the film. Rather, it is the sense of superiority of the statement that grates: Hermit Bob delivers his contemptuous perspective on human civilisation from the safety of his roadside bush, and Jarmusch from behind his dark glasses. Supposedly speaking for all of us, they both lose us there, and it hurts to see the quietness and calm that made Paterson so pleasing turn into a sour disdain for people who use smartphones.
The Dead Don’t Die was seen and reviewed at Cannes Film Festival 2019.