Zombie films have a specific feel to them.
Ever since George Romero’s 1968’s quintessential undead masterpiece, “The Night Of The Living Dead” viewers have come to expect certain things.
Lumbering, dead-eyed marauders.
Body horror and appetites for flesh.
A plucky band of survivors.
But Jim Jarmusch’s “The Dead Don’t Die” may take the cake as perhaps the most off the wall, unique take on the undead in cinematic history.
To understand what makes “The Dead Don’t Die” such a one-of-a-kind horror movie, you first need to understand what makes Jim Jarmusch tick. An iconoclastic filmmaker, active since 1984’s “Stranger Than Paradise” he has written and directed films in a variety of genres, everything from westerns (“Dead Man”) to crime films (“Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai”) to vampires (“The Only Lovers Left Alive”).
In Jarmusch’s hands, these well-trodden genres are rendered with his own comedic, existential eye. His western blends psychedelic and surprisingly beautiful poetics. A meld of hip-hop and samurai aesthetics marks his crime film. Even the tragic/romantic dichotomy of eternal living vampires turns curiously into an art/comedy.
Jim Jarmusch makes genre films you’ve never seen before.
The Dead Don’t Die: Plot
“The Dead Don’t Die” centers on two Centerville police officers (Robertson and Peterson). In the first scene, they are responding to the report of a stolen chicken at the campsite of a local hermit. Through their eyes, we see the small town for what it is: sleepy and beset by small problems.
But we also learn right off, something much bigger is doing on. The sun is still up and it’s 8 PM.
Throughout the first act, we meet the townspeople in their drab daily lives. Each one notes the curiously late sunset. It isn’t until the next morning (yes, the sun eventually goes down) that they investigate the first of the zombie murders in the local diner. This leads to an investigation of the cemetery where the officers discover open graves.
Trouble is brewing: turns out, are zombies loose in the sleepy small town.
As it turns out, complications ensue. While the officers load up on supplies, hunkering down in the station, the horde grows. One by one, the zombies pick off the townspeople, transforming them into another of the walking dead.
What Makes It Unique?
As he has done in many of his previous films, Jim Jarmusch toys with genre conventions. He’s like a cat with a mouse, making them entirely his own.
The zombies in “The Dead Don’t Die” don’t come back with the dead-eyed obsession for flesh. They crawl out of the earth, back to life searching for the things they were obsessed with during their life.
What does that lead to?
The first two zombies make their kill in a diner, only to turn their attention to the pots of hot coffee. When the larger horde finally descends on Centerville, we get a chaotic and humorous scene. Zombie men swarm a tool shop. Others drag around, staring at cell phones. These are a far cry from the staggering flesh-eaters of zombie lore.
Even more compelling in “The Dead Don’t Die” is the bizarre explanation given for why all of this is happening. No brain-eating virus. No wicked, undead magic. None of that. Instead, the earth’s axis has shifted (due to polar fracking). This has caused an upheaval in everything from the relation of day and night and, of course, the living and the dead.
The Dead Don’t Die: Meta Fiction
Deeper still is the Adam Driver‘s performance as Officer Peterson. Early on, he seems to know something about what’s going on in Centerville. While driving in the car, he leans over to Officer Robertson and whispers, “This is going to end badly.” What starts out as a mere feeling, however, evolves into something else. Later, when they hear a song (Sturgill Simpson’s eponymous country track) Peterson identifies it as the theme song.
What’s going on here?
In a hilarious scene in the station, Peterson demonstrates for Officers Robertson and Morrison how to destroy a zombie (the chardonnay obsessed Carole Kane). He knows all too much.
Finally, as the police car is beset on all sides by zombies, Robertson confronts Peterson with how he knows about what’s going on. “I read the script,” he replies, breaking the fourth wall.
As the reality dawns on Robertson, viewers reel back. We are finally able to see the ride Jarmusch has had us on for the last 90-minutes for what it is. We’ve been one officer or the other the whole time. We’ve either been clamoring for meaning and escape from the zombie invasion or willingly accepting of the whole farce.
The Cast of Characters
In “The Dead Don’t Die” Jim Jarmusch employs a number of his normal cast. Bill Murray and Adam Driver play the police partners. Legendary punk icon Iggy Pop plays a coffee obsessed zombie. Tom Waits (who has been in many Jarmusch productions) is a hermit who watches Centerville disintegrate from the woods. RZA plays a wise delivery driver. Chloe Sevigny entertains as the worrisome third wheel in the police car.
The star of the story is, without much surprise, Tilda Swinton. Jarmusch’s current muse, she is white-haired, white-eyed Scotswoman. A sword-wielding undertaker, she is new in town and curiosity to everyone. She steals every scene, from her deft demonstration of swordplay to her comic interaction with a couple of zombies in the morgue. When Swinton walks through town, out into a pasture in the morning after the zombie night. She is greeted by a UFO and here “The Dead Don’t Die” takes its final genre twist.
“The Dead Don’t Die” is deadpan, vaguely meta, wry all over and peculiar. But, looking at this film from a broader perspective, it is truly unique.
While hardcore horror fans may push back on it for its excesses and its introduction of new genre elements, it is a cinematic achievement worthy of comment and celebration.
Did you watch “The Dead Don’t Die”?
What did you think of the film? Where does it stack up with other films in Jim Jarmusch’s expansive catalog?
Did you think of it as a good zombie film?
Leave me a comment below and tell me what you thought.
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