Following 2013’s Only Lovers Left Alive, Jim Jarmusch returns to the realm of the undead with shuffling zombie hordes as they terrorise the small American town of Centreville. A Jarmusch joint through and through, The Dead Don’t Die is as charming, affected and perplexing as we’ve come to expect from the long-time darling of US indie cinema.
“This isn’t going to end well” is a mantra with which even the most casual zombie film buff will be familiar, so much so that Police Officer Ronnie Peterson (a stalwart Adam Driver) intones it throughout the picture. Later, after the first cannibalistic attack on a diner is discoverd by Ronnie’s superior, Chief Cliff Robertson (Bill Murray, natch), he assumes a wild animal attack. Perhaps several. Ronnie responds flatly, “I’m thinking zombies”.
The assumption of familiarity with the tropes of zombie films is explicit in The Dead Don’t Die, but Ronnie’s line at the diner subtly hints at a metatext driving the film: as any zombie aficionado worth their salt knows, characters in a Romero-esque zombie film never actually utter the “z” word – it’s always “ghouls” or “infected” or, if you like your TV stories, “walkers”. This unspoken rule was already lampooned in Shaun of the Dead, but here the gag works both as a deadpan joke and as a hint towards the breakdown of stable boundaries between the dead and the living, between the small space of Centreville and the wider world, between reality and fiction.
Time is out of joint – electrical devices stop working and the sun sets and rises unpredictably, brought on by the Earth being knocked off its axis by polar fracking. Observed by the forest-dwelling Hermit Bob (Tom Waits at his most Tom Waitsiest), a shot of a huge murder of crows flying against a dusk sky is reminiscent of The Birds, not just in the obvious visual allusion to Hitchcock’s film, but in their unnatural, jagged motion, as if they have been drawn on to the digital celluloid itself, “just like the old days”.
A typically-Jarmuschian cast of characters is assembled as if from his own phases of filmmaking – the aforementioned Tom Waits, living even more on the fringes than his outlaw tramp in Down By Law, the melancholy Bill Murray of Broken Flowers, Adam Driver replicating the poetic affect of his turn in Paterson, yet drained of sensitivity, and an otherworldly Tilda Swinton. It’s left to the supporting cast, among them Chlöe Sevigny’s Officer Mindy and a trio of incarcerated youths (Maya Delmont, Taliyah Whitaker and Jahi Di’Allo Winston) to conjure a sincere humanity that is as dumbstruck by the insensitivity of those around them as it is appalled at their dire circumstances.
Hermit Bob offers a possible reason for the carnage – humanity’s endless consumption; its disregard for the natural world both in space and time – yet little of what we see beyond mediated news reports supports his thesis. That zombies = consumers is such a well-worn trope of horror cinema, and that Jarmusch is so self-consciously operating within the genre, clues us into this reading as an interpretative red herring. Certainly, the film is drawing clear enviornmental parallells, but the feeling lingers that this macro-scale retribution meted out to individuals barely aware of, let alone complicit in their own destruction, is its own act of self-satisfied, post-ironic consumption.
Christopher Machell | @Dr_Machell