Bill Murray and Adam Driver Stagger Through Jim Jarmusch’s Strangely Silly Zombie Apocalypse.
DIRECTED BY JIM JARMUSCH/2019
One thing that horror movies have taught us is that a zombie apocalypse is nothing to scoff at. More likely, it’s something to outright laugh at. The latest such effort, Jim Jarmusch’s The Dead Don’t Die, staggers into theaters for just that purpose. But, a word of warning- despite the presence of its high profile “greatest zombie cast ever disassembled”, don’t go in expecting nonstop hilarity and yuks.
As evidenced by the entirety of the fairly vast filmography of forever cool “indie film godfather” Jarmusch, a smartly sardonic effort is to be expected. Jarmusch’s humor is the drollest of droll, never cracking a smile and always interwoven with a little hard truth. He delights in the absurd, and over the course of his solid four-decade career, he’s managed to surround himself with talent that share his askew, expersionless fascinations.
Now, at long last, almost all of them have been gathered into a movie. The cast list reads like an exhaustive who’s-who in the world of respectively amusing film and music luminaries. They are the curious celebrities who are never content to meander through life. Rather than list them all, it’s almost easier to state who’s not in it: Don’t come looking for beloved whackos John Lurie, Christopher Walken, Woody Harrelson, Keanu Reeves, Miranda July, Juliette Lewis, or Jeff Goldblum. Pretty much everyone else is in this movie. And, spoiler alert, most of them die.
Bill Murray (a Jarmusch alum of Broken Flowers) leads the sprawling cast as the sheriff of a quaint little American town. Adam Driver plays his right hand man, with Chloë Sevigny as their frightened deputy. First thing, they have a run in with an agitated local drifter call Hermit Bob. And if a Jarmusch movie has a character called “Hermit Bob” in it, then that character must be played by Tom Waits. Waits’ Coffee and Cigarettes cohort and fellow singing sensation Iggy Pop soon turns up as a coffee-obsessed zombie, signaling the beginning of the end for this particularly sleepy town.
But not before Murray and Driver admire the film’s theme song coincidently also titled “The Dead Don’t Die”, by Sturgill Simpson. And why wouldn’t they? By all evidence, Simpson’s twangy ditty is the only song that exists in this odd little Americana bubble. Besides the growing zombie problem, the song is everyone’s number one topic of conversation.
Anyhow, things get jarringly gruesome in a hurry for our trusty cadre of meandering law enforcement officers. “Zombies”, deduces Driver, his correct assertion as matter-of-fact as it is uncharacteristic of zombie movies to actually call zombies “zombies”. Soon a mystical katana-wielding undertaker played by Tilda Swinton gets involved. Selena Gomez and a couple male buddies arrive in town looking for fun. Probably a bad move. Almost from the start, Driver is announcing a premonition that “This won’t end well”. And not because of Steve Buscemi’s character, a righty-tightly in a red “Keep America White Again” hat. At least that character friends with Danny Glover’s character, (go figure) who’s too old for this shtuff, anyhow.
Though sharp-eyed film buffs will sport respectfully subtle references galore to the cinema of George Romero and the like, much of The Dead Don’t Die settles into weirdly blatant and even meta territory. (Is that a Star Destroyer on Adam Driver’s key ring? Why yes it is). Jarmusch, though, never usually one for referential humor, treats these gags with knowing hands as he simply tosses them into our laps with extreme prejudice. You can almost hear him laconically uttering “Here.” from off screen. For perhaps the first time in his career, restraint is thrown to the wind. The result is Jim Jarmusch’s silliest movie.
For its amazing cast and its unusually high degree of visibility, The Dead Don’t Die remains a lark; another chalked-up tally in the filmmaker’s “genre film” column, joining the more serious likes of 2013’s Only Lovers Left Alive, 1999’s Ghost Dog: Way of the Samurai, and 1995’s Dead Man. Truth be told, it’s not so much Night of the Living Dead or even Shaun of the Dead as it is Alex Cox’s tossed-off 1987 side-amusement, Straight to Hell. Though a western rather that a supposed horror film, Straight to Hell nevertheless is first and foremost a cast list of rock stars and quirky film personalities- including, briefly, Jim Jarmusch. Plot comes secondary to stylish spaghetti western riffing, fun strangeness, and strange fun. It’s an uneasy mess, but who cares- it could just as soon not exist, and then we’d be less one truly interesting weird little movie. That, minus a bit of Cox’s pulse, is The Dead Don’t Die– ridiculously inconsequential; a footnote in the filmographies of all involved, but good to have lurking about the summer movie season.
The best thing about The Dead Don’t Die is the chemistry between Murray and Driver, both operating in a state of resigned obliviousness and internal processing. Jarmusch is wise to lean into the pairing as much as he does, building this goofy little gorefest very much around them, with all those other interesting characters coming and going to considerably lesser degrees.
Even as The Dead Don’t Die shuffles about in the realm of death, flirting with notions of eco-concern versus some kind of greater futility, it is ultimately a celebration of its cast, their personas, and their abilities to slip into such interesting other skins. It truly seems that no joke is resisted, no matter how groaningly awful. (Rosie Perez appears as a local TV
news reporter called Posie Juarez. Wu-Tang Clan’s RZA is a delivery driver for WU-PS. Yeah). The whole thing proves to be a minor note played in a minor key, but not to be overlooked for fans of any of the key talent involved.
Not quite dead but not quite fully alive, The Dead Don’t Die staggers along pleasingly enough, brains this time being more a matter of consumption than a calling card. It’s easy to be underwhelmed by this blip on the radar of a lot of really smart people making a lot of really lame and/or dumb jokes. At times the movie is slower than it’s slow, slow zombies. And while Jarmusch is busy paying subtle tribute to Romero’s vital legacy, we can ask ourselves if we haven’t learned anything from this particular zombie apocalypse. And that answer would be a resounding yes.