The Dead Don't Die ★★★½

This review may contain spoilers. I can handle the truth.

This review may contain spoilers.

When I heard Jim Jarmusch’s next film was going to be a zombie comedy, I was not exactly thrilled. Though I love all monsters as a rule, I make an exception for that walking corpse known as the zombie. This pretty much do its adoption by nerd “culture” in the 2000s, leading me to associate it with the most unbearable people who wouldn’t shut up about their epic bacon ninja pirate zombie apocalypse. Eating people is one thing, but if this was the kind of company the zombie kept he wasn’t welcome in my home. 

However, as a Jarmusch fan I was autistically obligated to see this, with the hope that he would manage to produce a film at the least would only make have thoughts of self harm rather than act on them. Fortunately Jim has exceeded that and delivered the best zombie movie since Hocus Pocus. 

Pleasingly, rather than some standard virus or biological weapon, Jim looked back to Night of the Living Dead and has his zombies originate via a cosmic abnormality. Rather than random as in the Romero film, here it’s the result of ‘polar fracking,’ which has set the Earth off its axis, which even before reanimating the dead is having strange effects such as extending daylight hours, thus making the dead metaphors for climate change. 

This takes place in a town familiar to fans of Mystery Science Theater 3000, Centerville, and I imagine many horror fans will grow impatient as Jarmusch delays the zombie attack to develop the town and its inhabitants. But given my predilections it was fine by me, and it helps for when the attack happens, as we have a connection to the characters and town by then (rather than following one group as in most zombie movies, this is like Carpenter’s The Fog, having several groups or individuals dealing with the crisis separately.)

One of the big things to come out of its premier at Cannes is that it was a satire of Trump, which is far more terrifying than any reanimated corpse trying to eat you. Fortunately, Jarmusch keeps things from turning into a SNL sketch. Aside from the aforementioned climate change allegory (with government official on radio dismissing concerns of polar fracking), its mostly in two characters, Steve Buscemi’s Farmer Miller and Chloe Sevingy’s Officer Mindy. Miller is meant to be the archetypal Trump supporter, a mean old man who cares only about himself (though even he is palatably underplayed), while Mindy is a sweet but naive woman who believes what the government and news says and believes everything will work out.

I imagine Mindy will be a point of contention for many, as to whether the film is to cruel to her. But I found her a welcome presence. In the vast majority of zombie movies from what I’ve seen, characters seem to be able to instantly adjust themselves mentally to having to kill scores of what were once people, including loved ones. Mindy is simply unable to live in this new world, eventually resolving she doesn’t even want to try, and it’s not due to her being a coward, but because she’s a kind hearted person who can’t not see the zombies as human beings. 

Jarmusch also follows Romero is using zombies to critique consumerism, as the zombies head for the things they most desired in life. This does result in the film’s poorest attempt at satire, showing young zombies stumbling about looking at their phones, just like the political cartoons you see on facebook. But even then they’re just distinguished as what it is they desire; everyone of all ages are shown as desiring things, usually a stereotypical one (kids want toys, dads want tools) that indicates Jarmusch isn’t being too serious. It’s not a subtle message, so I don’t know why Jarmusch felt the need for Tom Waits to directly say it at the end. But hey maybe unlike every other time someone has made a statement of that effect in movies, tv shows, books, short stories, plays, songs, comic books, radio shows, stand up routines, magazines, podcasts, poems, commercials, newspapers, legends, reviews, ballads, audio plays, or dirty limericks this will make us realize we care too much about uh materials. 

Probably the biggest reason I enjoyed this more than other zombie comedies is the tone. Most of them have a manic, theater kid energy, taking quirkinesses to 11, and in general just being obnoxious. The Dead Don’t Die is like Jarmusch’s other work in being laid back and generally low energy, which I imagine will be a turn off to those expecting a Shaun of the Dead or Zombieland. Even Tilda Swinton as a ninja Scotswoman chopping off zombie heads isn’t played as “oh fuck yeah!” The humor generally worked for me, aside from the weird fourth wall breaks (the only sensible explanation I can think of is that it’s Jarmusch’s tribute to old Monogram horror movies such as The Ape Man and Voodoo Man, which also had odd fourth wall breaks, although at the end.) What’s odd is how serious this zombie comedy is, constantly reminding us that these zombies were (are) human. I suspect this won’t do well at the box office, not being what people expect, but for me it’s a fine night out at the movies.

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