Every zombie story is about the human response to mortality and the pernicious fear of the “other.” In most zombie stories — the best ones, arguably — the other isn’t the lumbering dead folk after all, with slavering maws and rotten limbs. The real threat is always us, the survivors.
Over time, the zombie story adapts to what’s keeping us up at night: race relations and teen culture, for example, in George A. Romero’s undead classic Night of the Living Dead.
Jim Jarmusch’s new deadpan zombie satire, The Dead Don’t Die, recasts the zombie story for our current social anxieties, taking swipes at zombie consumerism, zombie capitalism and zombie politics.
The action takes place in Centerville, a tiny little town in the state of Nowhere. Something’s wrong — daylight lasts too long, and the moon is red and angry.
Citizens of Centerville notice these things, but they’re told by authorities to ignore what they’re witnessing with their very own eyes, a particularly queasy and quiet kind of terror we’re all feeling lately, whether your real or imagined hobbyhorse is climate change, chemtrails or 5G.
This brings to mind an unlikely parallel to the fantastic HBO limited-series Chernobyl, in which the real terror in the story is how easily people line up like cattle to slaughter, parroting talking points and hoping for the best.
For his film, Jarmusch has gathered an appropriately hip all-star cast, most of whom do what they do best with about as much conviction of some actors helping their buddy with his DIY project over a long weekend.
As a police chief trying to maintain order once the guts start bubbling out of the abdomens of the local townsfolk, Bill Murray plays that same “How did I get here? And when can I go home?” note he’s been playing for a few decades. And it’s as endearing as ever.
As his posse, Adam Driver and Chloe Sevigny score some laughs with loose and fun performances. Tom Waits plays the local town kook living in the woods who, of course, is most accurately reading the signs of trouble presented by nature itself, but mostly he just does Tom Waits stuff. As does Iggy Pop when, as an actual zombie, his iconic bullfrog voice repeats “coffee” instead of brains as he lumbers toward his next victim.
Because, you see, in Jarmusch’s vision zombies are reanimated to not only slake their thirst for flesh, but to seek out the mindless distractions that kept them sane while they were alive: coffee, chardonnay and Wi-Fi, for example.
This device is always compassionate, without any trace of value signaling. Because when it feels like the world is ending, find joy where you can — even if it’s just in a nice cup of coffee.
Selena Gomez is Cleopatra to a trio of teenagers passing through Centerville that just needs a place for the night, to the immediate disdain of the locals. Looks like some hipsters from Cleveland, they say, delineating yet another set of others.
And Steve Buscemi plays a living MAGA zombie, complete with a red hat that reads instead “Make America White Again.” When he gets his chance to mow down some zombies, he unloads on the perceived mindless hordes of immigrants and left-wingers threatening his borders, both literal and metaphorical.
Buscemi and Gomez, like many of the characters, exist mainly to die, while Tilda Swinton plays the town’s spooky new undertaker who can handle herself with a samurai sword and seems to react to the ensuing zombie apocalypse as if her day has finally come.
There’s a lot that’s missing from Dead Don’t Die: the terror of having to whack off the heads people who in life were known and loved, or how survivors deal with the realization that, if they don’t make it, they too will twitch back to life as empty eating machines. Nor do the survivors ever feel too concerned with the very act of surviving itself.
In fact, there isn’t much terror at all in Dead Don’t Die, playing instead for social commentary, laughs and a few sick-out shots of blood and guts rather than the kind real existential questions asked by all the great zombie stories.
But maybe the thing is, in a world with Fox News and QAnon, having your entrails munched by Iggy Pop doesn’t really seem so bad. (Broadway Metro)