In recent years, something seems to have gone awry with Jim Jarmusch’s filmmaking. He began his career as the quiet underdog of the American indie boom of the 1990s, eschewing the flash of his more commercially successful contemporaries and favouring a poetry of the mundane. Jarmusch has steadily built up an impressive filmography of masterfully sustained tone pieces, seemingly minor works which — through tone, texture and duration — render incidental moments in the lives of everyday characters with an incredible sense of weight. With Only Lovers Left Alive, Jarmusch made his first outright bad movie. A pastiche of a flavour-of-the-month genre that indulges in mean-spirited humour and hollow self-awareness, Lovers marked the first time the director pandered to the worst instincts of his hip cosmopolitan audience.
When Jarmusch rebounded with the wonderful Paterson in 2016, it briefly seemed that Lovers was going to be remembered as a single, unfortunate misstep in an otherwise shining oeuvre. Unfortunately, The Dead Don’t Die doesn’t merely repeat the mistakes of Lovers, but amplifies them to the nth degree. The very notion of the famously laconic, understated filmmaker helming a zombie movie feels like the stuff of lazy late-night comedy, and The Dead Don’t Die bizarrely feels like an extended SNL skit (imagine if Wes Anderson actually decided to turn The Midnight Coterie of Sinister Intruders into a feature, and you get the idea). Jarmusch constantly mines humour out of the tension between his deadpan style and the hysteria that an outbreak of the undead should provoke, but in taking the most obviously recognizable elements of his style, then divorcing them from their thematic context and using them as a foundation for cheap, cynical gags, Jarmusch hasn’t just produced a throwaway movie — he’s betrayed his fans.
“I’m sick of it — these zombies, what they’ve done to the world, their fear of their own imaginations,” moans Tom Hiddleston’s Adam in one of the most excruciating moments of Lovers. The ‘zombies,’ in Adam’s perspective — and in the film’s own thematic schema — are represented by philistines who eat fast food, enjoy dubstep, and devour mindless blockbuster movies, in stark contrast to the more refined taste of the culturati vampires at the film’s core. The Dead Don’t Die essentially stretches this idea to feature length, explicitly framing the undead horde as a stand-in for brainless consumerist masses.
If, on a conceptual level, this may sound like a contemporary spin on the work of George A. Romero, the key difference is that the true target of Romero’s satire is neo-liberal apathy and middle-class materialism. Where Romero turns a mirror on the audience and forces them to face their own part in the corruption of Western society, Jarmusch shamelessly caters to his own, positioning the zombies as stand-ins for the narcissistic, conformist hordes that are supposedly ruining the modern world. As the dead overrun the town, they are propelled forward by the consumer item they love the most, including chardonnay, cell phones, Snapple, and unlimited wi-fi.
The Dead Don’t Die is teeming with references to classic genre cinema, from Hitchcock to Ed Wood to Roger Corman, but these signifiers are never engaged with in an interesting or illuminating way; instead, they feel like a cheap shortcut to cultural prestige. Like Lovers, The Dead Don’t Die is more interested in superficially paying tribute to great artworks than breaking any new ground. Touches like the campy title cards and the deliberately low-fi practical zombie effects are grounded in nothing more than regressive nostalgia.
Set in the fictional town of Centerville — a Coens-esque parody of lame Middle America (its welcome sign describes it as “a real nice place!”) — The Dead Don’t Die focuses on three good-natured cops: Ronnie (Adam Driver), Cliff (Bill Murray), and Mindy (Chloë Sevigny). As nothing of too much importance ever happens in Centerville, these three while away their time dealing with minor complaints by a roster of locals, none of whom transcend the status of broad caricature: the backwards, Trump-supporting Farmer Miller (Steve Buscemi), the young comic book geek Bobby (Caleb Landry Jones), and the eccentric, forest dwelling loner Hermit Bob (Tom Waits).
The equilibrium of this town is thrown into chaos by the arrival of Zelda (Tilda Swinton), an otherworldly presence presiding over the local funeral home, who wields a samurai sword and exhibits unclearly defined supernatural abilities. After a few ominous warning signs (radio signals mysteriously malfunction, pets abruptly run away from home, full sunlight persists into the middle of the night), the dead abruptly start walking the earth, and any semblance of genuine eeriness established in the first act is instantly dismantled as the first zombie we see is Iggy Pop, who delivers a parodic riff on his performance in Jarmusch’s own Coffee and Cigarettes, stumbling towards a diner while mindlessly repeating the name of his favourite beverage before tearing into the establishment and murdering two waitresses.
From there, the film lurches further and further towards its inevitable apocalypse, yet Jarmusch maintains an air of studied, affectless distance rather than registering any sense of shock, anxiety, or sorrow. The three cops act as the primary focal point, and their unflappable attitude of droll indifference quickly becomes cloying; predictably, they are more concerned with starting petty arguments than actually solving the case. This frustration is exasperated by the execrable meta-comedy, in which the central trio ineptly attempts to understand their situation through the lens of popular horror movies. This self-reflexivity is not only infuriatingly obvious, but it also functions as an attempt of insulating Jarmusch’s film from serious criticism — the old mentality that a cliché will become acceptable if a character acknowledges that it’s a cliché.
Over the course of the film, Jarmusch touches on several potentially interesting thematic issues (environmental destruction, racial prejudice, the horrors of corporate capitalism), but each one is treated so flippantly and briefly that they never get the chance to evolve into anything substantial.