On an overcast afternoon, an automobile pulls into a graveyard in rural Pennsylvania. Shortly thereafter rotting corpses rise from their graves, reanimated, to begin wandering mindlessly across the countryside in search of guts and gizzards.
But this is not 1968, it’s not Night of the Living Dead and it’s not the work of George Romero. Rather, the time is now, the film is The Dead Don’t Die, and the director is indie icon Jim Jarmusch.
The film is something like David Lynch meets George Romero, or Twin Peaks invaded by the walking dead. Like TP, Centerville is a “real nice place” on the surface, but underneath it is populated by isolated rural eccentrics. These are people who are simultaneously conformist and unpredictable, liable to blandly confront the unexpected strangeness around them, or come up with some expression, gesture or reaction unsuitable in a real-life situation. There isn’t even much doubt or debate over the immediate effects of reckless fracking at the two poles, which knocks the earth off its axis (as in The Day the Earth Caught Fire). Zombies? Of course – whatelse would happen?
Since 1968, there have been enough zombie movies and TV shows to fill a whole Netflix channel, one that would take three years to watch. Most of them are junk, and in fact, the word “zombie” isn’t even used in Night of the Living Dead, where the undead are called “ghouls.” There have been no authentic movie zombies since the early 1950s, as the ’30s cinematic Haitian slave society has evolved on the screen into single-issue monsters, dull and dumb as the dirt they crawled out of. Outside of Shaun of the Dead and a handful of other titles, zombie movies are predictable, nihilistic and sloppy.
Jarmusch’s isolated rural folk – there are no full families in Centerville – somehow manage to intermingle without killing each other. Leave that to whacking dead. Thus, ironic hipsters passing through town get along with a helpful cop and a farmer with a Trump-style baseball cap that reads “Make America White Again” who has a daily diner coffee with a black hardware store owner (at least they sit in the same vicinity). It’s a vision of America where Trumpists and centrists equally can thrive – at least until the zombies come.
The Dead Don’t Die begins in the morning and ends sometime late at night. In between three local cops (Bill Murray, in his second zombie film; Adam Driver as a prognosticating deputy; and the perpetually fraught Chloë Sevigny) slowly grasp what the viewer already knows. When overdue night finally falls, zombies attack, in succession, a diner, a hardware store, a gas station and a juvenile detention home. As zombies do, they increasingly isolate the populace until Centerville’s trio of official protectors are trapped in their squad car, back at the cemetery.
Jarmusch has gathered a terrific cast, including Carol Kane, who has three rasped words of dialogue (all “Chardonnay!”); Rosie Perez as a raw news anchor; international professional weirdo Tilda Swinton as a samurai coroner; Iggy Pop, perhaps overdetermined as the living dead; and RZA as Dean, a philosophy-spouting “WUPS” deliverer who says, “Appreciate the details.”
That last line is a good tip for watching this movie. The details include: how Jarmusch introduces the viewer to all the relevant locations as the squad car goes past them; Farmer Frank (Steve Buscemi) naming his cat Rumsfeld; how all the animals are fleeing Centerville, like their kin in Dreamcatcher; that out-of-left-field flying saucer from Fargo S3; mortician Swinton making up corpses to look like Divine; and how Jarmusch follows Hollywood’s “Rule of Three” with Driver’s fourth-wall breaking comments about theme songs, improvisation and reading the film’s full script.
The Dead Don’t Die is by turns droll, funny, repetitious and set at a deliberate pace that may exasperate viewers not used to Jarmusch’s anti-genre approach to movies. You won’t die laughing, but those who ride its rhythms might still bust a gut.
THE DEAD DON’T DIE ( 3 ) Directed by Jim Jarmusch • Starring Bill Murray, Adam Driver, Chloë Sevigny, Tilda Swinton, Danny Glover, Selena Gomez • Rated R • 105 min. • At Osio Theater