Jim Jarmusch may have been a little late in embracing the vampire sub-genre with 2013’s The Only Lovers Left Alive, but the film ultimately emerged as one of the more stylish entries in a seemingly endless collection of films imagining a world of nocturnal, eternal blood suckers. With his latest release, the indie veteran is again a latecomer to a well-worn cinematic trope, offering up his take on the zombie oeuvre with a droll dive into the world of the living dead. Given the sheer number of zombie-themed films and television programs we have seen over the last few years, Jarmusch wisely avoids trying to reinvent the formula, relying instead on a stellar cast to serve up some laughs as they battle a horde of dead folks who have emerged from their graves as a result of the world having spun off its axis due to something called ‘polar fracking.’
With Bill Murray, Adam Driver and Chloe Sevigny as a trio of small town cops, Tilda Swinton as a sword-wielding undertaker, Tom Waits as a (alleged) chicken-stealing hobo and Steve Buscemi as a redneck farmer, Jarmusch has certainly assembled a bravura cast for his foray into zombiedom, which makes it a little surprising that the film doesn’t quite zing as much as we might expect. All the cast, which also includes Danny Glover, Iggy Pop, Selena Gomez and Rosie Perez, have certainly embraced the silliness of it all and there is much amusement in the distinct lack of urgency from Chief Robertson (Murray) and his two subordinates in dealing with any issues that require his attention, including the zombie horde that has taken over the otherwise quiet hamlet of Centerville. There are many moments of mirth because, let’s face it, Murray reading the phone book would be funny, but the film ultimately emerges as perhaps Jarmusch’s slightest work yet.
Centerville is a town so slow-paced that the only ‘crime’ needing investigation is the disappearance of a solitary chicken belonging to the MAGA hat-wearing Frank Miller (Buscemi). Such is Robertson’s laid-back approach to policing that when he and Officer Peterson (Driver) find themselves being shot at in their attempts to question the reclusive Bob (Waits) about the missing chicken, the pair simply get back in the car and drive away, convincing themselves that Bob probably didn’t do it anyway, rendering the case closed. As such, the Chief simply expects (hopes) that the zombie plague will somehow recede on its own, however Peterson is convinced that things ‘will end badly’, a mantra he repeats constantly, much to the annoyance of his boss and to the great distress of his colleague, Officer Morrison (Sevigny). It is only late in the film that Peterson reveals his doomsday prediction comes not from any intellectual insight, but rather from the fact that he has read the entire script, one of several meta moments that pop up through the course of events. Another has Peterson confirming to viewers that, yes, the Sturgill Simpson song that plays constantly on the car radio is the theme song to the movie. The fact that Simpson then pops up as a zombiefied version of himself only adds to the weirdness.
Those seeking blood and gore will be greatly disappointed as Jarmusch has opted for the Buffy approach to the slaying of the undead in that they simply collapse in a cloud of dust upon having their head removed. The fallout from the polar fracking, which has also resulted in the destabilisation of electronic communications and a lack of any clear distinction between night and day, is a climate change parable that, according to the director, is much darker than originally envisaged as a result of the world becoming much bleaker since he first started work on the project. Sure, The Dead Don’t Die is a little self-indulgent and might not be his most polished piece, but even Jarmusch at less than his best is worth your time.