THE DEAD DON’T DIE takes the tropes, idioms, and beloved foibles of low-budget zombie flicks and, with a skillful flick of its auteur’s cinematic wrist, recontextualizes them into a stylized gloss on the new normal of 2019. Certainly the “Make America White Again” ball cap sported by the most reviled citizen (Steve Buscemi) of sleepy Centerville (pop. 738) leaves no doubt about the meta-villain of Jim Jarmusch’s nostalgic homage to the genre. And to his own career, populated as it is with a veritable who’s-who of his oeuvre, from Eszter Balint, who co-starred in his startling debut, STRANGER THAN PARADISE, to Adam Driver, the poet/bus driver in Jarmusch’s ode to romance, PATERSON.
It may look like NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD, albeit in the lush colors of George A. Romero’s later work, but from the first, we are squarely set into Jarmusch’s archly stylized universe. Small town cops Cliff Robertson (Bill Murray at his most ironic) and Ronnie Peterson (Driver at his least ironic) are listening to a song on the car radio, the same title song that played over the opening credits a few minute earlier. Cliff turns to Ronnie and asks why it sounds so familiar. They’ve just finished dealing with Hermit Bob (Tom Waits), the town philosopher/eccentric who prefers living in the woods while mulling the sad state of humanity, and who is not averse to taking a potshot as the officers when they question him about some missing chickens. Their day is about to get worse, actually, as Ronnie puts it at several points in the film, this whole thing is going to end badly, but it’s going to be wickedly sly as it gets there.
Portents abound about the world not being quite right. Daylight persists until 8:30 at night; ants are frantic; and cell phones refuse to hold a charge. Oh, and the earth’s axis has tilted, probably due to polar fracking, though government agencies refute this as fake news. Plus, there’s the corpse (Carol Kane) in the police station because there’s no room at the funeral home, where the new mortician in town (Tilda Swinton) practices with her katana when she’s not making unorthodox choices about make-up for the newly departed. When the first zombie attack occurs, it’s under the light of a pink-tinged full moon and the undead chow down in a diner renowned for its fine coffee. The carnage discomfits Cliff and provokes an upchuck from Deputy Mindy (Chloë Sevigny), but Ronnie calmly explains that it’s obviously zombies, because why would it be anything else?
Jarmusch uses the awkward pauses and flat affect of the genre’s acting style and transmutes it into a rarified, ahem, deadpan perfection of comic timing. In the repetitive dialogue and complete non-sequiturs of those early zombie flicks, he discovers poetic cadences, taking the familiars of schlock and grindhouse to an apotheosis that transcends mere camp and finds a counterintuitive nobility in the very absurdity on display. He gets to the heart of why we love these films so much, and with nary a trace of condescension. The running gag of self-awareness organizes itself into careful compositions and deliberate whimsy in its shout-outs to cinema history and pop culture.
THE DEAD DON’T DIE operates on many levels that tease one another in their very simultaneity. The politics of Romero’s seminal zombie film is there in the mix, as is the pulchritude of Selena Gomez in Daisy Dukes as the nubile scoffer of a city hipster, Rosie Perez as the local newscaster unnerved by events, but maintaining her plastic media cheer, and Waits in the woods decrying materialism in a monologue worthy of Ed Wood, Jr. It’s a daring piece of filmmaking, as are all Jarmusch’s efforts, visually potent and emotionally reflective, even at its silliest.