Much like the zombies and ghouls the heroes of The Dead Don’t Die contend with, Jim Jarmusch’s B-movie satire rises slowly, brings our attention to its stench, and proceeds to wander aimlessly, disappointingly caught in its own daze.
Centerville, USA is a straight forward bisection of the American backwoods. It’s redneck country, the kind of simple, rural town which simultaneously gestates the white male Trump supporter and the impoverished other in a state of fragile, anxious harmony. Sheriff Cliff Robertson (Bill Murray) sits as the community arbiter, accompanied by Ronnie Peterson (Adam Driver), his smart car driving, straight-talking deputy. The first half-hour is predominantly focused on the duo behind the dashboard of their police cruiser, Jarmusch using their travels to introduce each of the ensemble players. It gets off to a good start, with the nuanced, monotone dialogue we’ve come to expect from a Jarmusch film, carried by great delivery on the part of both leads. You’d expect as much from Murray with his manifest deadpan comedy chops, but Driver matches the former line-for-line.
It’s at an introductory point of The Dead Don’t Die, through exposition-laced dialogue between Murray and Driver, that the wheels truly begin turning, and things become weirder: the dogs, cats and cows of the town go AWOL; watches freeze; otherwise fully-charged smartphones die on the spot. Along with the characters we hear the cause of the devastation through a heightening crescendo of reports from the radio, television and other sources of mass media. Polar fracking has pushed the earth out of its axis, causing a huge array of problems – the height of which being zombies. Or ghouls, as Peterson repeats.
As the film progresses, the characters reveal a state of meta self-awareness, the script becoming increasingly self-referential. In the opening twenty minutes, Peterson refers to Sturgill Simpson’s “The Dead Don’t Die”, which plays over the cruiser radio, as the film’s theme song. Later on, as the apocalypse looms closer and the hordes of undead grow, Peterson repeatedly drives home the point that their end is going to be bleak. And how he’s tipped off? The screenplay. Jarmusch, their director, is apparently a bastard. It’s a strange move, bringing some insular chortles, but it feels displaced from the wider narrative.
Tom Waits’ Hermit Bob watches the havoc from the distance through cracked binoculars, camouflaged by the dirt and leaves acquired throughout his long-term bohemia, narrating the action for us with a string of philosophical musings. He’s manifestly the Jarmusch avatar of the film, presenting the director’s most pressing ideas. The problem here is that the concepts Jarmusch wants to explore – technological advances, racial politics, rampant American consumerism – feel outdated at best and vacuously presented at worst.
And, really, this is the stick that breaks the camel’s back for The Dead Don’t Die. There is an almost total lack of narrative or conceptual direction. Where there is a statement to be made, it’s often confused, lost in its own pretence. Waits’ monologues, for example, often sound like an old man venting his uncomfortable anger at the move from an analogue world, which is confusing when presented against the otherwise progressive satire Jarmusch presents – clumsily attempting to dismantle MAGA and millennials in the same breath.
In terms of sight gags, Jarmusch sometimes hits the correct notes – the gangly Adam Driver driving a tiny Smart car, for example, is brilliant – but it feels far too obvious to use shambling hordes as an analogy for the blue-screen captivated hordes of smartphone users as the undead moan “WiFi…” with iPhones in hand. Tilda Swinton, portraying a jarringly odd yet captivating mortician-come-samurai breathes some more necessary comedy into an otherwise odd script.