If you’re a Bill Murray fan (and who isn’t?), you’re in luck. This month brings the first of two zombie films that he’ll be appearing in this year. In October, he reunites with the original cast and director of 2009’s perfect comedy Zombieland.
This weekend we get writer/director Jim Jarmusch’s The Dead Don’t Die. Jarmusch has already put his idiosyncratic philosophical spin on the vampire and lone samurai genres, in Only Lovers Left Alive and Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai. Now it’s the zombies’ turn for his personal touch.
His latest film is great fun, but lacks the cohesive philosophy of these earlier works. Clearly a homage to George Romero’s zombie flicks, the monster effects are splendidly graphic, as undead hands reach out for living flesh and their gray, decaying mouths munch ravenously.
Set in the tiny burg of Centerville (whose welcoming sign proclaims it’s “A Real Nice Place”), we see the zombie apocalypse play out on a micro scale in Anytown, USA. The macro dimension is in the background, in sporadic TV or radio postulations that “polar fracking” has made the planet wobbly and awakened the dead.
Jarmusch’s laid-back pacing affords us time to get to know the living denizens of his town, whose actors are nearly a who’s who of the director’s favorites. At the center of Centerville’s narrative is a trio of cops: paternal Cliff (Bill Murray), jumpy Ronnie (Adam Driver), and still more neurotic Mindy (Chloë Sevigny). We also meet Hermit Bob (Tom Waits), racist Farmer Frank (Steve Buscemi), hardware store owner Hank (Danny Glover), and the town’s Scottish Buddhist undertaker Zelda (Tilda Swinton).Before the action begins, and even as the neutralizing headshots accumulate, The Dead Don’t Die is stuffed with deadpan, absurdist humor, making this the funniest feature I’ve seen this year. Interspersed among the townsfolks’ blunted reactions to the world’s end are Adam Driver’s repeated utterances that “this is gonna end badly.” Tilda Swinton’s astonishing proficiency with a sword is scarcely remarked upon.
And the screen is filled with imagery offering throwaway laughs: Swinton runs the Ever After Funeral Home; Buscemi wears a red “Keep America White Again” ball cap. Rare for a comedy, just one attempt at humor falls flat.
Besides this, my sole criticism of Jarmusch’s otherwise excellent and delightful film is that any intended moral to his story is muddy. Is it, as the Sturgill Simpson tune that opens and closes the movie signifies, that the dead live on in our memories and in their legacy? Is it our contemporary failure of community, even in “A Real Nice Place” like Centerville, given their headless, unhelpful, and uncoordinated response to the world’s end?
I suspect Jarmusch is also skewering our attachment to meaningless stuff. His zombies repeatedly, ridiculously utter a single word representing the thing they loved most while alive. Among their utterances, I counted only one that transcended frivolity and ephemerality.
Considering the polar fracking that gets the whole mess started, Jarmusch is doubtlessly critiquing our species’ heedless environmental destruction. (I’m pretty sure it’s not mere coincidence that one of the climate deniers heard on the radio is a dead ringer for callous plutocrat and Trump cabinet member Steve Mnuchin.)
From this point of view, Centerville’s law enforcement symbolizes our internally split responses to the ruin unfolding in slow motion before our eyes. Like Driver’s policeman, we know it’s gonna end badly. Like Sevigny’s cop, we want vacuous reassurance that it’s all going to be OK. Like Murray’s chief, we’ll keep fighting, despite the overwhelming odds against us.
3.5 out of 5 stars