The Dead Don’t Die likely has more in common with previous Jim Jarmusch effort The Limits of Control than with any zombie-comedy type of recent memory. In Limits, Jarmusch used a dry and vague/puzzling atmosphere to play around with notions of meaning between and in the seams, while doing a story of a hitman’s mission. Dead is equally dry and puzzling, though maybe not as vague as Limits: In that movie, Jarmusch mercilessly experimented on himself, his film, and his audience, in search for something – perhaps just anything. Here, in a movie marketed as a zany romp, we catch on to what we think he’s after and to what we feel comfortable accepting. Whether people will enjoy throughout or walk-out mid showtime is probably a fifty/fifty split. But at least they’ll leave knowing for sure what they saw. I think.
It’s an easy watch for the initiated cinephiles prepared and eager for the oddball, but a difficult one for people seeking Zombieland. In Dead, we follow caricatures of Bill Murray and Adam Driver as small-town U.S.A. police officers, who begin to notice strange occurrences like daylight at night and no bird sounds. In various radio reports, we learn of energy resources being found through polar fracking, which scientists warn could destabilize the axis of the planet. This is the cosmic Night of the Living Dead reason for a zombie attack on a global scale, focused locally. Residents prepare based on knowledge from films, while Driver’s second in command cop simply states “This isn’t going to end well.” Indeed, it doesn’t.
All through the movie, there’s this ho-hum calmness and stillness when discussing and investigating the escalating zombie incidents. It’s dry humor, but also awkward and off-kilter as if this is Twin Peaks almost. Almost. We’re grounded enough in its “reality” but still grasp for something familiar. Jarmusch gives us a cast of familiars, nothing but actually, but a script that couldn’t be farther from the ordinary. It’s funny when one after one, the officers take a peek at a diner massacre, only to react strangely and specifically. Murray is exhausted, Driver is startled but not so surprised, and Chloe Sevigny (the third officer) vomits. When told “F**k you!” at the start by a philosophizing woodsman Tom Waits, we get an inkling for what’s to come.
And what comes is, for me, two-fold: 1) Finding meaning in anything is futile but makes for something to do, which creates meaning. The grand cast comes and goes, sometimes even discarded and killed from afar as if to strip away their star power. Some conversations feature repetitive behavior and uncomfortable pauses, making for plenty of laughs but also confusion. Then there’s the meta element, like when Driver answers Murray’s question about a song with, “Well, it’s the theme song.” There’s nothing bland about Dead’s compositions or scenarios, as still as they may be perceived. Really, plenty is happening from ear to ear. Just listen and look.
2) If there is meaning, it may be in how humanity, as it stands, doesn’t deserve or isn’t entitled to anything at all. I got a sense of generational fault here, especially with the not so subtle environmental issue gimmick that kicks off the main problem. Murray the baby boomer, Driver the indifferent “told ya so” young adult, and the kids left to fend for themselves. Sound… familiar? It’s clear to me that Jarmusch has had it with how things have turned out for the world, and instead of throwing around blame, with this movie he skips to throwing out consequences to everyone. All the while tunneling down into a rabbit hole of self-reference and strange thoughts on what is left to be learned – especially when the dead walk the Earth.
If you buy a ticket this or next weekend, go in understanding that this is no Shaun of the Dead. With The Dead Don’t Die, while delivering on many a horror homage, director Jim Jarmusch goes for peculiar attitudes and heavy headed themes that, while not missing from the zombie genre, are done ever so differently here.
“Kill the head” is repeated a few times in the film. That may mean more than the literal interpretation. Or not. Does it matter? Maybe. Don’t walk away so soon…
RATING: 5 / 5
The Dead Don’t Die is now playing at The Broad and AMC Elmwood.
Bill Arceneaux has been an independent writer and film critic in the New Orleans area since 2011, working with outlets like Film Threat, DIG Baton Rouge, Crosstown Conversations, and Occupy. He is a member of the Southeastern Film Critics Association and is Rotten Tomatoes approved. Follow him on Twitter: @billreviews