movie review

Jim Jarmusch’s The Dead Don’t Die Is a Heavy-Footed Zombie Comedy

Tilda Swinton. Photo: Frederick Elmes / Focus/© 2019 Image Eleven Productions, Inc.

When I heard Jim Jarmusch had made a zombie comedy called The Dead Don’t Die, I thought, “That could be the subtitle of all his films!” His characters aren’t dead, but they’re resolutely deadpan, in the vaudeville coinage from the old definition of pan, meaning “face.” So, dead face. Jarmusch has cited Buster Keaton and Yasujiro Ozu as major influences, and he once co-founded an imaginary club called the Sons of Lee Marvin for white people with good cheekbones who barely change their expressions. The deadness of the pans points up the absence of human connection in Jarmusch’s films, but it’s a mistake to think his characters have no emotions. They yearn. They feel the void inside — and outside. They’re in sync with the infertile, poisoned landscapes. Jarmusch might be bummed out by entropy but he’s also bewitched by the vestiges of soul beneath the rust and rot, the only signs of authenticity in a synthetic, zombie-capitalist mainstream culture. He has never had a protagonist as fitting as Adam Driver’s bus driver Paterson of Paterson, who zones out in a state of creative ferment as he drives around an old city whose time has passed. The fight against becoming a zombie in a living-dead world is the launching pad for Jarmusch’s weird genius.

Until now, that is. It’s painful to report that Jarmusch’s deadpan is in the rigor mortis stage in The Dead Don’t Die. His own creative ferment isn’t happening this time — the acid cynicism has killed the yeast — and the actors seem unsure whether to commit to the material when their director plainly hasn’t. Bill Murray and Adam Driver play cops in a small Middle American town with an equilibrium that’s fragile, even before Earth is thrown off its axis by polar fracking and the dead start coming back and chewing people up. In the first scene, Murray and Driver confront a visionary hermit played by Tom Waits, who looks like a cross between Gandalf and the Cowardly Lion and knows that the end is nigh. But then so does Driver, who’s aware he’s in a movie that’s “not gonna end well” — his refrain. After Jarmusch goes meta, the only suspense is whether he can convince us that the film has a reason to exist. That and whether more hip actors will drop in.

It must have been some kind of party, that set. Chloë Sevigny is the third cop, a whiner. Steve Buscemi is a crabby farmer with a hat that reads MAKE AMERICA WHITE AGAIN but deigns to converse at the diner with a chipper Danny Glover while being waited on by Eszter Balint (of Stranger Than Paradise) and Rosal Colon (of Orange Is the New Black). Rosie Perez is a TV newscaster named Posie Juarez — cute. Carol Kane is a corpse that reeks of Chardonnay awaiting pickup in a jail cell. Caleb Landry Jones runs a supply and video store and resents it when people call him “Frodo” — but not too much because he’s a movie nerd. Iggy Pop and Jarmusch’s longtime partner, Sara Driver, claw their way out of graves and hit up said diner for coffee and intestines. Whom have I missed? RZA. Indie stalwart Larry Fessenden, a specialist in low-key, low-budget genre films. Tilda Swinton as a Scottish mortician who’s also a samurai swordsperson and something else I won’t spoil, not that it really matters. At one point, Selena Gomez shows up with two other fresh-faced ex-Disney types and is eventually beheaded, her pan held up to the camera as if Jarmusch wants you to laugh at his defiling of a corporate teen icon. Harmony Korine beat you to it, Jim.

The Dead Don’t Die is not unenjoyable but not quite enjoyable, either. From time to time, you perk up — when Glover or Jones is onscreen; when Carol Kane comes briefly alive, a Bride of Frankenstein gone to seed; and when Swinton brings her otherworldly concentration to the act of decapitation — but then you settle back down into a state of half-awakeness. The satire here is too on-the-nose, too easy. Working with vampires in the sublime Only Lovers Left Alive, Jarmusch poked fun at the horror genre as well as his own stylized, white-boy cool, but he still made you feel his nostalgia for vintage guitars and Byronic romance in a world being slowly drained of blood. The Dead Don’t Die doesn’t reinvent the genre in the same way. It’s a doodle in the margins of George A. Romero’s Dead films and Edgar Wright’s Shaun of the Dead, which was, more than anything, a brilliant satire of middle-class English complacency.

Given that Jarmusch has never been cynical about his work, it’s tempting to blame The Dead Don’t Die on Donald Trump — to think that Jarmusch has been pushed over the edge like so many of us. The idea of corporations fracking the North Pole and ushering in the apocalypse — while insisting that only media “alarmists” think it’s a big deal — isn’t that outlandish. Nor is the notion that, with the end in sight, we’d be going about our daily business — shopping, drinking coffee, and watching dumb zombie movies. This medium is his message.

*This article appears in the June 10, 2019, issue of New York Magazine. Subscribe Now!

The Dead Don’t Die Is a Heavy-Footed Zombie Comedy