By Tim Jackson
The Dead Don’t Die is a satiric trifle, but a cleverly amusing one.
The Dead Don’t Die, directed by Jim Jarmusch. Opens on June 14 at the Coolidge Corner Theater, Embassy Cinema in Waltham, and AMC Boston Common 19.
Director Jim Jarmusch attacks the zombie genre with gusto in his latest film, The Dead Don’t Die. Throughout popular culture, zombies have been done to death — so to speak. So why would Jarmusch bother to try his hand at the genre? For starters, he has tailored the material for his favorite actors, Bill Murray, Adam Driver, Tilda Swinton, Tom Waits, and Iggy Pop. There’s also a hodgepodge of celebrity cameos, including Steve Buscemi, Chloë Sevigny, Danny Glover, Selena Gomez, Caleb Landry Jones, Rosie Perez, Carol Kane, and cult director/actor Larry Fessenden. Jarmusch’s vampire film, Only Lovers Left Alive (2103), reflected serious directorial engagement, mixing decadent intellectuals and punk rockers. Zombies receive a more back-of-the-hand treatment, with environmental disaster and consumerism (with a tip of the hat to George Romero) the nebulous political targets. Essentially, The Dead Don’t Die is a gag fest filled with horror tropes performed by a dream cast. The set-up and jokes generally lampoon the banality and the ordinariness of small-town life. The effort is a trifle, but a cleverly amusing one.
Murray and Driver play sheriffs Cliff Robertson and Ron Peterson in the one-diner town of Middletown. Their biggest problems are a bothersome hermit (Waits, looking like a decrepit Cowardly Lion) and the non-stop complaints of Farmer Miller (Buscemi, sporting a red “Make America White Again” cap). A third officer, Mindy Morrison (Sevigny), operates the phones back at the station. But soon she finds herself watching over a corpse that’s being kept in a jail cell. Obviously, the body will reanimate (a very brief appearance by Kane). This resurrection is a harbinger of a world gone strange: watches don’t work, the sun sets too late, the radio is on the blink, cell phones go dead, and a lot of previously expired humans are showing up. Quelling the zombie attack will require the use of multiple weapons, from axes to hedge clippers. “You have to remove the head,” Peterson helpfully explains. News reporter Posie Juarez (Rosie Perez) informs us that the cause of the supernatural doings is fracking, which may have thrown the earth off its axis. “This is not going to end well,” Peterson explains more than once. How does he know? “I read the script,” he tells us, in one of the film’s many “meta” moments, winks to the viewer that this is a Jarmusch zombie jamboree, a tongue-in-cheek homage to the genre, 103 minutes of comic mayhem.
Jarmusch’s Limits of Control toyed with spy film conventions and then subverted them with unresolved plot points. In contrast, The Dead Don’t Die moves along with the clean predictability of a B-movie, albeit one that is riddled with homages to old horror films. The titular theme song plays on the car radio. Robertson and Peterson creep through a spooky graveyard, flashlights in hand, as the wild-eyed hermit Bob (Waits) peeks out from behind the bushes. This crazed loner shows up in almost every shot, commenting on the action like an addled Greek chorus. Zombie arms pop out of graves; the undead, with clown-white faces and raccoon eyes straight out the Night of the Living Dead, stumble through the township.
As fans know, zombies can only be killed by removing the head. When a noggin is hacked, sliced, or chopped off from a wobbling neck, Jarmusch attenuates the bloodletting by replacing it with puffs of black ash. This ash-puffing effect is marvelous, as are the other ways the critters are dispensed of. The best of the zombie beheaders is Zelda Winston (Tilda Swinton), the robotic Scottish undertaker of the Ever After Funeral Home. (Swinton supplies one of the strangest brogue accents since Mike Myers’s Fat Bastard.) Zelda is easily the equal — with a samurai sword — to Uma Thurman’s Beatrix Kiddo (from Kill Bill); she adroitly lops off several heads with a single swipe. She also applies make-up to corpses, referring to fashion magazines as she does the “makeovers.” In one scene, Zelda makes a corpse look like Tor Johnson, the inspector-turned-zombie in Ed Wood Jr.’s vampire/zombie/space goulash, Plan 9 from Outer Space. In honor of that laughable film, Jarmusch adds an outer space plot twist that makes as little sense as the one in Plan 9.
As in Romero’s Dawn of the Dead, the zombies are consumer-oriented, though their desires are more specific. Iggy Pop enters as a zombie gurgling “coffee”; child zombies cry “toys”; Kane comes to life mumbling “chardonnay.” Selena Gomez is choosing roles that play with her kittenish image; here she plays a “damn hipster.” She is terminated — and then reanimated in a most delightful fashion. The Dead Don’t Die is relentlessly deadpan and jokey, and that wears thin at times. But, to paraphrase Rudyard Kipling’s “If,” if you can keep your head and sense of humor when all about you are losing theirs . . .
Tim Jackson was an assistant professor of Digital Film and Video for 20 years. His music career in Boston began in the 1970s and includes some 20 groups, recordings, national and international tours, and contributions to film soundtracks. He studied theater and English as an undergraduate, and has also has worked helter skelter as an actor and member of SAG and AFTRA since the 1980s. He has directed three feature documentaries: Chaos and Order: Making American Theater about the American Repertory Theater; Radical Jesters, which profiles the practices of 11 interventionist artists and agit-prop performance groups; When Things Go Wrong: The Robin Lane Story, and the short film The American Gurner. He is a member of the Boston Society of Film Critics. You can read more of his work on his blog.