Jim Jarmusch’s new horror-comedy, The Dead Don’t Die, is a missive from the other side. For one thing, it’s a zombie film in the tradition of the late George A. Romero, complete with the genre iconography that entails. For another, it’s set in the fictitious middle American town of Centerville, population 738 — so the movie also doubles as the director’s portrait of a (literally) dying way of life. Accordingly, Centerville is populated by various familiar types and faces, including police chief Cliff Robertson (Bill Murray), a gentlemanly hardware store owner named Hank (Danny Glover), and a racist farmer named Frank (Steve Buscemi), who sports a “Keep America White Again” hat. But just as soon as Jarmusch introduces us to these small-town folk, things start to go awry, the undead take over, and everything goes to hell.
All these occurrences are observed by a junior police officer, Ronnie (Adam Driver), with an unusual level of equanimity — which turns out to be one of the film’s flaccid, running meta-jokes. Having read “the script,” Ronnie/Driver knows that things won’t end well, so for him, there’s not much point in getting all hysterical about the impending apocalypse. This outlook, it turns out, is about all there is to The Dead Don’t Die, a one-note film that mostly just blurs the lines between mordant nihilism and self-referential laziness. In Only Lovers Left Alive, Jarmusch was clear-eyed about the outsider status of his lead characters, who continually griped about the “zombies” (i.e. humans) ruining the planet, while remaining sincere about their luxuriant pursuits of beauty. In The Dead Don’t Die, there is no such balance. The film’s turgid finale all but affirms the outlook of its two outlier characters (played by Tom Waits and Tilda Swinton, respectively) as it dives headlong into resigned pessimism, leaving viewers to search vainly for pleasure in the pointlessness.
Published as part of June 2019’s Before We Vanish.