Nothing is quite as it seems in Jim Jarmuschs’s latest, The Dead Don’t Die, which premiered at Cannes on Tuesday to lukewarm applause and a relatively short standing O (but no boos!). That’s true on several levels — and some of them are mildly spoiler-y, so check out now if you’d rather remain in complete suspense.
On its most basic level, the film is a gently comedic take on the classic zombie movie, following an outbreak of the undead in a small town referred to only as “Centerville, USA.” The town — which is explicitly shown to have just one diner, one gas station, one motel, one juvenile-detention center, and one funeral home — is an obvious Twin Peaks reference, complete with eccentric locals and more than a hint of the uncanny. Bill Murray is Cliff Robertson (named after the late American actor), our faithful if slightly out-of-touch sheriff; Adam Driver is Ronnie Peterson, his preternaturally calm deputy; Chloë Sevigny is Mindy Morrison, a fellow officer who’s not exactly ready to take on reanimated corpses. All three are investigating some strange deaths at the local diner, odd animal disappearances, and shifts in the Sun’s hours of operation when things go full George Romero. Townsfolk crawl out of their graves, ravenous for human flesh, thanks to the axis-shifting effects of something called “polar fracking.” (You can probably guess where this is headed.)
On an another level, The Dead Don’t Die is a cheeky anti-capitalist screed, much like its Romero forebears. The zombies, it’s explained several times, are obsessed not just with human flesh but with the things that preoccupied them in life. Jarmusch makes it very clear where he stands on our current consumer culture: As the zombies rip into their victims’ intestines, they moan things like, “Coffee,” “Wi-Fi,” “Free cable,” “Snapple” — one even stops mid-zombie-stalk to strike an Instagrammable pose and mumble, “Fashion.” Several even stumble around hunting for humans while staring openmouthed at their iPhones. Tom Waits, playing “Hermit Bob,” has gone off the grid but spies on the zombies and locals alike, muttering to himself that they’ve “sold their souls for a Game Boy.” Cliff and Ronnie lament having to murder people they once recognized as friends, and Mindy is devastated to see her own grandma among the hordes, but if they don’t want to become one of them, they must, as the film repeats over and over again, “kill the head.” If it wasn’t obvious before this film, it is now: Jim Jarmusch has a distinct contempt for late capitalism.
And for Trump. It’s hard not to see the film as an allegory passing judgment on a government that defends insidious activities by saying they’re “good for jobs” and “fantastic.” Most of the townspeople, like Mindy, accept these proclamations at face value. Steve Buscemi’s character is an open racist, with a “Keep America White Again” hat and a dog named Rumsfeld, who delights at shooting “trespassers,” all of whom happen to be people of color. The fact that they’re zombies hardly registers. Selena Gomez, Luca Sabbat, and Austin Butler are in the mix too, playing “Cleveland hipsters” who wind up in the middle of the carnage. (Let’s just say their detached sense of irony is not depicted as a survival skill.) Throughout the film, Driver’s character is a rare voice of reason — along with Tilda Swinton, playing the “unusual” new mortician in town who has a penchant for samurai swords and takes to calmly slicing off zombie heads when chaos erupts. (The deeper meaning of “killing the head” I’ll leave to Jarmusch in interviews.)
But it’s the film’s other (third, if you will) level that’s its most rewarding. Jarmusch pokes fun at every single one of his actors — and himself — by having them break through the fourth wall on several occasions. Not only do they admit they’re in a film, they make light of their public personas. The best self-referential moments in The Dead Don’t Die are as follows:
— The film opens with a new song, written specifically for the film, called “The Dead Don’t Die,” by Sturgill Simpson. (“The dead don’t die / Any more than you or I / They’re just ghosts inside a dream / Of a life that they don’t own.”) A few minutes later, Murray and Driver hear the song on the radio. “Why does it sound so familiar?” asks Murray. “It’s the theme song,” says Driver. The song plays diegetically several times throughout the film, with each character expressing his or her love for it — until the end, when Murray yells, “I can’t take it anymore!” and hurls the CD out a window.
—Sturgill himself appears late in the film as a zombie, dragging a guitar behind him. “Guitar!” he croaks endlessly.
—Iggy Pop pops up as a zombie early on. He looks … mostly like himself, in a leather vest and velvet bell-bottoms, and is obsessed with coffee.
—Tilda Swinton plays Zelda Winston, a freaky Scottish woman with elfin features who nobody can quite seem to figure out. (“She’s Scottish or Irish or something?”)
—Driver’s character’s name is Peterson — a reference to his previous film with Jarmusch, Paterson.
—At one point in the film, Swinton looks down at Driver’s key chain. It’s a Star Wars Destroyer. “Star Wars,” she says, delighted. “A wonderful fiction.”
—Rosie Perez shows up a few times to play a peppy newscaster named Posie Juarez.
—The Wu-Tang Clan’s RZA plays a local “Wu-P.S.” deliveryman, dispensing wisdom like, “The world is perfect — pay attention to the details.”
—Driver makes fun of his own massive form by driving around a tiny Smart car. When he asks Sevigny if he can drive her home, she asks, “Can two people even fit in there?”
—In the middle of the zombie attack, Murray, a Jarmusch mainstay, mentions he was planning on retiring two years ago but couldn’t. Driver asks him why. “Are we improvising?” asks Murray.
—Throughout the film, Driver repeats a refrain: “This is going to end badly.” He says it again near the end.
“Why do you keep saying that? How do you know?” Murray asks him.
“You sure you wanna know?” Driver prods.
Murray says yes.
“It’s because I read the script,” says Driver.
“The whole script?” asks Murray incredulously.
“Yeah, Jim sent it to me,” says Driver.
Murray is furious. “I only got the scenes I was in,” he says. “I’ve done so much for him. Some of it you don’t even know about.”