‘The Dead Don’t Die’ Review: Zombies Gobbling Up Scraps of Pop Culture
“The Dead Don’t Die,” Jim Jarmusch’s shaggy-dog zombie movie, isn’t all that scary, but one thing about it did haunt me. A character played by Selena Gomez is referred to as “a hipster from the big city.” If I were on Twitter right now, I’d note that fact and say something like “Wow. 2019,” except that I’m not sure I entirely understand the layers of irony and pop-cultural meta-textualism at work here. Or, for that matter, what the weary epithet “hipster” even signifies at this point, especially when deployed by Bill Murray, Adam Driver and Chloë Sevigny.
Those three play most of the police department of Centerville, a hamlet in some possible proximity to Pittsburgh or Cleveland — where the hipsters might come from — that advertises itself as “a nice place.” And so it is, in a familiar tongue-in-cheek, self-conscious manner. This isn’t quite “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri,” but it doesn’t feel so far away. There are no fast food restaurants, strip malls or big-box stores. There’s a picturesque motel (where Gomez and the other two hipsters who arrived with her find a room), a diner, a hardware store and a gas station that also stocks comics and memorabilia. Packages are delivered by RZA, whose truck has “WuPS” written on the side.
Maybe that’s not a typical slice of Americana, but Jarmusch has never been much for realism. He’s a melancholy utopian, positing a world where most people are too cool to be cruel, and where aesthetic sensibilities take the place of political ideologies. The one politically minded guy in Centerville seems to be Farmer Miller (Steve Buscemi), who wears a red baseball cap that reads “Keep America White Again.” Nobody likes him very much, not because of how he might have voted — does anyone vote here? — but because he’s a jerk, excessively attached to his own property rights. He does get along with Hank, though, who runs the hardware store and is played by Danny Glover. This isn’t a place for hard feelings or fierce arguments.
Still, some serious trouble is afoot. A process called “polar fracking” has skewed the earth’s rotation, wreaking havoc on the planet’s diurnal rhythms — sometimes the sun shines in the middle of the night; sometimes darkness falls at noon — and disturbing the slumber of the dead. They start climbing out of their graves and eating people in the usual sloppy, bloody way. The three cops have to deal with the situation, aided for a while by the town’s new coroner (Tilda Swinton). “This will end badly,” says Officer Ronnie Peterson (Driver), and I won’t spoil anything by saying how he knows.
Not that there’s really anything to spoil. “The Dead Don’t Die,” which features an excellent title song by Sturgill Simpson (who shows up, undead, dragging a guitar behind him), runs on mood rather than plot. And like Jarmusch’s vampire film “Only Lovers Left Alive,” it’s not a terrible mood to be in. This is an end-of-the-world party with an appealing guest list and inviting, eccentric décor. Bill Murray is, if not the official host, then the master of ceremonies, as wry and craggy as you’d want him to be. Eszter Balint is here, and Rosie Perez, too. Also Tom Waits. The consumption of human flesh just keeps it interesting, and the crepuscular light — shot by the ghoulishly gifted cinematographer Frederick Elmes — gives it a bewitching, Halloween ambience.
The only significant screams come from Sevigny’s character, who behaves as if she were in an actual horror movie. (When Driver’s cop is confronted by guts, gore or mild unpleasantness, his stock response is “Yuck.”) Jarmusch respects the genre without really committing to it. At several points, he pays explicit homage to George Romero’s “Night of the Living Dead,” and those gestures are humble rather than presumptuous. More than 50 years after Romero set corpses walking, nobody really needs to update his vision — or his canny diagnosis of modern pathologies.
Zombies are just people, of course, reduced to a simple, insatiable, cannibalistic appetite. They’re horrifying, but also strangely innocent, since they don’t act out of evil motivations or through sinister conspiracies. It’s also easy and fun to kill creatures that are already dead, and the last stretch of “The Dead Don’t Die” is full of decapitations and exploding skulls, as Centerville becomes a zone of locally-sourced retail carnage.
Driver, Murray and the other townspeople address the menace with sad stoicism, a show of resistance in the face of inevitable apocalypse that is not without its poetry. And yet there’s also something missing, an element of intensity or a sense of stakes. If I lived in a nice place and it was overrun by flesh-eating ghouls, I might get scared or mad. Does that make me a hipster? Or a square?
The Dead Don’t Die
Rated R. Hipsters. Running time: 1 hour 45 minutes.