THE DEAD DON’T DIE (2019, Director Jim Jarmusch)

© 2020, by M. Keith Booker

One of the most independent of all American independent filmmakers, Jim Jarmusch has sometimes been credited with having instigated the indie film movement as we now know it with his 1984 film Stranger Than Paradise. Among other things, Jarmusch is known for his devotion to art and poetry, quirky humor, innovative use of music, and refusal to compromise his artistic vision for commercial success. At the same time, though, Jarmusch’s interests extend to pop culture and pop genres as well, as when he turned his hand to the vampire film with Only Lovers Left Alive (2013). With The Dead Don’t Die, he extended his work in the horror genre with a zombie film that comfortably resides within the zombie tradition founded by George Romero, both in the nature of its zombies and in its political commentary. At the same time, it brings Jarmusch’s distinctive indie vision to bear on the zombie film, breaking entirely new ground, especially in its use of a deadpan sort of humor that differs substantially from the broad humor of such zombie comedies as Return of the Living Dead (1985) and Shaun of the Dead (2004).

However unique it might be, then, The Dead Don’t Die resides quite comfortably within what Stacey Abbott has called the “cinematic rising” of the zombie film in the twenty-first century, in which a resurgence in the zombie genre has “increasingly become embedded within apocalyptic discourses that preoccupy twenty-first century culture and become a metaphor through which we express anxiety and anticipation of a potential extinction-level event that will bring about the collapse of modern society, if not humanity itself” (60). One feature of this “cinematic rising” is an increasing entanglement between the zombie and the vampire, which makes it quite understandable that Jarmusch would make both a vampire film and a zombie film in the past few years. More important and telling, though, is the apocalyptic tone of The Dead Don’t Die, which makes it a typical zombie film, even if the irony with which it treats the theme gives the motif an especially postmodern tone.[1]

The Dead Don’t Die begins with a shot of a rural graveyard as a car drives up a winding country road toward it, thus directly echoing the beginning of Romero’s classic Night of the Living Dead (1968), the film that founded the zombie genre as we now know it. In this case, though, the car is a police car and its occupants are two members of the three-person police force of the small town of Centerville, which is perhaps in Pennsylvania, the setting of Night of the Living Dead, though the film was shot in upper New York state. In particular, aging and world-weary police chief Cliff Robertson (Bill Murray) and his young deputy Ronnie Peterson (Adam Driver) are coming to check out a complaint by local farmer Frank Miller (Steve Buscemi) that someone—perhaps local woodsman Hermit Bob (Tom Waits)—has been stealing his chickens. It seems an ordinary kind of rural occurrence, though the names of the characters already suggest that this film is going to have a tongue-in-cheek side. “Cliff Robertson,” for example, was the name of a prominent Academy Award–winning American actor, while “Frank Miller” is the name of one of America’s most prominent comics creators, who worked as a writer and artist on such classic comics as The Dark Knight Returns and the Sin City series. On the other hand, the names “Hermit Bob” and “Ronnie Peterson” seem to have been chosen for their bland ordinariness.

It quickly becomes clear, however, that conditions in Centerville are far from ordinary. Cliff and Ronnie get out of the car and stroll off into the woods, Ronnie carrying a shotgun. The film’s first ominous sign then occurs as they come upon the site of a smoldering campfire, the skinned body of an animal lying nearby. “Yuck,” says Ronnie, in a response that again suggests the film will have a comic intonation, though the sight of the dead animal would be very much at home in a much darker horror film. Suddenly, Hermit Bob takes a shot at them from the underbrush, though it is clear that he intentionally aims over their heads. The shot does not trigger a violent exchange, however. Indeed, Cliff calmly just decides to leave Bob alone: he is clearly more Andy Taylor than Dirty Harry. Then the screen goes black and the film’s title song, sung by country artist Sturgill Simpson, plays over the opening credits, again adding a quirky and somewhat comic touch.

After the opening credits, we again see Cliff and Ronnie in their cop car, discussing the situation. Cliff explains to Ronnie that he took no action against Hermit Bob because he doubts if Bob even stole the chickens as charged by Farmer Miller, given that Miller is “such an asshole.” Moreover, Cliff has known Bob since they were in junior high together fifty years earlier, and he knows of no instance in which Bob has ever harmed anyone. Then they notice that it is already twenty minutes past 8 pm, yet is still daylight, which isn’t normal at this time of year. Then, Ronnie notices that his watch has stopped, adding to the sense that something strange is going on. “Something weird’s going on,” says Ronnie, who serves through the film as the primary point-of-view character as something of a commentator on the action, even if he sometimes simply states the obvious. “This isn’t gonna end well, Cliff,” declares Ronnie, issuing a prediction that he will in fact repeat several more times in the film.

The film then cuts back to Hermit Bob in the woods, noticing that the ants in an ant colony there seem to be seriously agitated, “all jacked up like it was the end of the world.” Then Cliff and Ronnie attempt to communicate by police radio with officer Mindy Morrison (Chloë Sevigny) back at the station, and find that something seems to be interfering with the signal. Ronnie decides to try calling her with his cell phone, but discovers that the phone is completely dead, though it had been fully charged. They decide to listen to the civilian radio to see if they can get some idea of the source of these strange events. However, when Ronnie turns on the radio, he finds Simpson’s “The Dead Don’t Die” playing. “Wow, that sounds so familiar,” says Cliff. Ronnie then explains that it sounds familiar because “it’s the theme song.”

It’s an odd comment that seems to suggest that Ronnie knows perfectly well that he is in a movie called The Dead Don’t Die. Cliff seems puzzled, but nothing is made of this odd remark at the time. Indeed, the nature of Ronnie’s odd inside knowledge will not become clear until near the end of the film, when Ronnie (or perhaps Adam Driver) admits that Jim Jarmusch let him read the entire script for the film beforehand, leading Cliff (or perhaps Bill Murray) angrily to reveal that he had only been allowed to read certain scenes, so that he has little idea of the overall plot of the film. He’s not happy with Jarmusch at this point: “After all I’ve done for that guy—and it’s a lot that you don’t even know about. What a dick!”

It’s funny, self-referential postmodern joke that serves as the most overt expression of something most viewers will have figured out by now—that this is a highly self-conscious film that is acting out various tropes of both the zombie subgenre and independent film. It must have been a fun film to make, partly because (as Cliff/Bill’s reaction to the knowledge that Ronnie/Driver read the whole script indicates) many members of the cast had worked with Jarmusch before. Murray, for example, is an American cultural icon who starred in Jarmusch’s Broken Flowers (2005) and had supporting roles in Jarmusch’s Coffee and Cigarettes (2003) and The Limits of Control (2009). Driver, meanwhile, is one of America’s biggest stars, perhaps thanks primarily to his performances in Star Wars films[2], but he also starred as the title character in Jarmusch’s touching and understated ode to poetry, Paterson (2016)—and thus played characters that had almost the same last name in both of his Jarmusch films.

Indeed, one of the most impressive aspects of The Dead Don’t Die is its stellar cast. It was not for nothing that the film was marketed with the tagline “The greatest zombie cast ever disassembled.” Other actors who appear in the film and who had appeared in earlier Jarmusch films include the astonishingly versatile Tilda Swinton, who plays Zelda Winston, Centerville’s strange, other-worldly new mortician (and who also played the vampire “Eve” in Only Lovers Left Alive). Other previous Jarmusch collaborators make smaller appearances in The Dead Don’t Die, including an appearance as a zombie by Sara Driver, Jarmusch’s longtime personal partner, who has also worked with him in several capacities through the years. Rosie Perez, who had a lead role in Jarmusch’s Night on Earth (1991), has a brief cameo as local television anchor Posie Juarez, whose reports provide information about the building crisis, even before we see actual zombies.

Hungarian actress, singer, and violinist Eszter Balint, who had made her film debut in Stranger in Paradise, appears in The Dead Don’t Die as a diner waitress. Meanwhile, Balint is only one of several cast members who are professional musicians, calling attention to the special importance of music in the films of Jarmusch, who has himself worked as a composer and musician, especially as a member of the rock band SQÜRL, which has provided original music for the soundtracks of Only Lovers Left Alive, Paterson, and The Dead Don’t Die. Other musicians with small parts in the latter film include rapper and Wu-Tang Clan member RZA and legendary performer Iggy Pop, the “Godfather of Punk” and leader of the important punk band The Stooges. Even Sturgill Simpson makes a brief appearance as a guitar-dragging zombie.

Pop star Selena Gomez also has an important role as one of a group of “hipsters” who roll into Centerville, perhaps coming from Pittsburgh (home of George Romero). Of the musicians who appear in The Dead Don’t Die, Waits, a prominent singer/songwriter who is a member of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, is probably most important to the film, though it should also be noted that Waits, like Gomez, has extensive experience as an actor, in his case including appearances in two earlier films directed by Jarmusch and a particularly rousing recent appearance in the Coen Brothers’ The Ballad of Buster Scruggs (2018).

Other interesting cast members of The Dead Don’t Die include veteran character actress Carol Kane, who has made many memorable appearances in film and television, and who in this film plays a zombifed Mallory O’Brien, who had formerly been the town drunk and who says nothing in the film but “Chardonnay,” riffing on the well-known zombie lust for consuming brains. Rising character actor Caleb Landry Jones—whose recent appearances have included a prominent role in the horror film Get Out (2017)—also has an important role as Bobby Wiggins, a local horror film buff who has turned the gas station he runs into a gift shop for horror film memorabilia. Finally, The Dead Don’t Die features Larry Fessenden as local motel owner Danny Perkins. Fessenden is an actor with numerous credits, mostly in horror films, though he is best known as a horror film auteur who has been the writer and director of a number of distinctive horror films, from the vampire film Habit (1997) to the Frankenstein update Depraved (2019).

For a zombie film, The Dead Don’t Die contains a lot of quirkily comic moments. For example, when fresh bodies, killed by zombies, are first discovered at the town diner, Cliff interviews Hank (who found the bodies) on the scene. Ronnie then rolls into the parking lot as well, driving a tiny smart car, into which the lanky Adam Driver has been packed like a sardine. It’s an environmentally friendly vehicle, but it’s still a funny moment, perhaps especially for audiences who have come to associate Driver with his role as Kylo Ren in the third Star Wars trilogy. He’s still zipping around in high-tech hardware, but the Smart Car is a far cry from the futuristic vehicles of Star Wars. Moreover, it’s still a gas-powered vehicle, and the treatment of it in the film suggests that Jarmusch finds it an insufficient response to our current crisis. As Zelda puts it after she borrows it from Ronnie, it’s “an amusing little machine.”

Ronnie arrives in his Smart Car.

Despite its comic tone and postmodern self-referentiality, The Dead Don’t Die features some highly effective zombie visuals, very clearly inspired by the zombies from the films of Romero. Jarmusch does, though, cut back on the graphic violence that has come to mark this genre. He even reduces the bloodiness of the film by stipulating that his zombies don’t bleed blood when hacked into or decapitated. Instead, they emit puffs of dusty black smoke, thus reducing the level of visceral impact. There’s no explanation for why the zombies “bleed” smoke, but then no explanation is needed. This is not a film that is interested in realistic representation of its zombies, which serve simply as an expedient for the film’s double project of delivering both entertainment and commentary on the state of the world in 2019.

Ronnie Peterson carries the head of Selena Gomez’s character, hacked off so that she can’t become a zombie, having been killed by one.

These two projects cannot, of course, be separated. One could see the entertainment aspects of The Dead Don’t Die as a strategy for the delivery of a political message to a cynical American public that tends not to respond well to overtly didactic statements. On the other hand, one could also argue that the tone of the film simply suggests Jarmusch’s own resignation in the face of mounting environmental and social problems, leaving entertainment as our only option for making the situation bearable until the end finally comes.

I think, however, that the film does not accept the extinction of the human race so much as accept the fact that it is difficult to impress upon the general population that the twin forces of consumerism and environmental decay are combining genuinely to threaten the extinction of us all. Given this situation, the film makes this point the best it can, hoping to make at least a minor contribution. In this sense, The Dead Don’t Die follows directly in the footsteps of the zombie films of George Romero, which are also known for their political commentary, treating many of the same issues in much the same way as The Dead Don’t Die, even if Jarmusch’s film certainly tilts more toward the openly comedic.

Early on, The Dead Don’t Die provides a suggestion that the zombie outbreak might be due to the destructive environmental impact on the earth of modern industrial capitalism. Early in the film, one of Posie Juarez’s television reports suggests that “polar fracking” might have distorted the rotation of the earth on its axis, resulting in possibly “extreme” results. A teenage nerd (currently being held in a detention facility) then begins to explain what this change in rotation might mean, but stops short of speaking his ultimate conclusion, which is then provided by one of the other inmates: “total planetary destruction.” The reference to “polar fracking” is slightly whimsical, but it does have a basis in reality. The practice of “fracking,” through which high-pressure fluids are injected into subterranean rocks, creating cracks through which petroleum and natural gas can be more easily extracted, has in fact been practiced more and more widely in the United States in recent years. The practice, however, is highly controversial, and there is much evidence that it can have potentially disastrous effects, including the contamination of ground water, leakage of methane into the atmosphere, noise and air pollution, and even the potential triggering of earthquakes. To an extent, then, the zombies of The Dead Don’t Die should not be read simply as the literal walking dead, but instead can be seen as allegorical stand-ins for the overall negative impact on the environment of fracking and—by extension—of industrial capitalism as a whole.

Some of the political commentary of The Dead Don’t Die is almost entirely comedic, especially in the presentation of Buscemi’s Farmer Miller, whose red baseball cap bears a legend reading “Keep America White Again,” clearly echoing the “Make America Great Again” hats that have become so closely associated with the presidential campaign (and, later, the presidency) of Donald Trump. In particular, Miller is clearly depicted as an out-and-out racist, by extension suggesting that Trump’s presidency has been driven by racist policies as well. The film, meanwhile, makes quite clear that it rejects Miller’s racist attitudes, both in its sympathetic portrayal of the exasperated reaction to Miller on the part of local African American hardware store owner Hank Thompson (veteran Hollywood star Danny Glover) and in the gleeful way in which it depicts Miller eventually being overwhelmed by a horde of zombies, while Hermit Bob looks on from the woods and approvingly declares it to be “payback time.” Miller even gets it again near the end of the film as Ronnie blows off the head of Zombie Frank, noting, “You’ve got this coming.”

Farmer Miller’s hat.

Ultimately, though, just as in the zombie films of Romero, the most important political commentary in The Dead Don’t Die is focused on the phenomenon of consumerism, though one could, of course, see the quest for consumerist success as the ultimate driving force behind practices such as fracking, or even behind racism—in which fear and rejection of the Other is driven by a sense of competition for the ownership of limited resources. Just a bit more than midway through the film, we see a crowd of child zombies milling about in a desperate search for the gratification of their consumerist instincts, muttering things such as “candy,” “Snickers,” “Popsickle,” “Skittles,” as well as “toys.” It’s a funny scene, but it also provides a chilling reminder of the ways in which consumer capitalism gets its hooks into American children early on, teaching them constantly to develop a never-ending desire for items to consume in a quest for fleeting pleasures.

The rage to consume shown by these zombie children directly echoes the notorious desire to consume brains (or other human flesh) that has become such a central part of zombie mythology. It comes as no surprise, then, that the adult zombies of the film are driven by a similar rage. In addition to Mallory O’Brien’s lust for Chardonnay (or the lust for coffee on the part of the two zombies who attack a diner at the beginning of the outbreak), we also see adult zombies staggering about (most of them carrying cell phones) in a quest to consume “Snapple,” “wi-fi,” “Bluetooth,” “Siri,” “Oxy,” “Xanax,” and “Ambien,” thus combining sugary drinks with consumer electronics and popular drugs to suggest that consumerism in general functions very much like a drug that creates addictive needs in its users.

Of course, since the films of Romero, especially Dawn of the Dead (1978), it has become rather common to deploy zombies as emblems of consumerism.Thus, while early zombie films such as White Zombie (1932) and I Walked With a Zombie (1943) focused on the use of zombies essentially as slave labor, films from Night of the Living Dead to The Dead Don’t Die have more commonly figured zombies as mindless consumers. David McNally has noted how recent zombie films (with Night of the Living Dead as the progenitor of the phenomenon) have repositioned zombies as “crazed consumers, rather than producers,” thus offering “biting criticism of the hyper-consumptionist ethos of an American capitalism characterized by excess. But, for McNally, this deployment “comes at the cost of invisibilising the hidden world of labour and the disparities of class that make all this consumption possible” (260-1). In short, while shifting its emphasis to consumerism, Romero might have weakened the potential for his zombie films to serve as a critique of class inequalities under capitalism. Then again, one could also argue that the shift follows a shift in capitalism itself. Thus, the earliest zombie films focused on labor and production, as did capitalism itself until the end of the nineteenth century. The rise of consumer capitalism at the beginning of the twentieth century then shifted the emphasis of capitalism from production to marketing, a change that has ultimately been reflected in the zombie film, beginning with Romero.

The film’s commentary on consumerism is summed up late in the film by Hermit Bob, who serves as the conscience of the film. As Cliff and Zombie wade into an army of zombies, giving it their “best shot” despite almost certain death, Bob narrates their final moments with one last commentary on the zombies as emblems of consumerism: “Zombies. Remnants of the materialist people. I guess they’ve been zombies all along. Ghosts.” Then he adds a quotation from Moby-Dick, a text that has been lingering on the margins of the film, adding a literary touch: “Nameless miseries of the numberless mortals.” He then ends with one final rant against consumerism: “I guess the dead just don’t wanna die today. I guess all them ghost people plumb lost their goddamn souls. Must have traded ‘em away or sold ‘em for gold or whatnot. New trucks, kitchen appliances, new trousers, Nintendo Game Boys, shit like that. Just hungry for more stuff.” Then, as Cliff and Ronnie go down beneath the swarm of zombies, Bob issues the film’s final judgment on the impact of consumerism on the world in general: “What a fucked-up world.”

Despite its comic tone and ironic distance, The Dead Don’t Die is a zombie film in which the zombies appear to emerge triumphant. To that extent, it would appear to be a pessimistic film, despite its seemingly good-humored acceptance of the situation. Thus, Matt Zoller Seitz’s review of the film notes the film’s “zonked-out acceptance of extinction.” At the same time, it is important to remember that the real enemy of humanity in the film is not zombies, but consumerism. In fact, Bob’s declaration that “materialist people” have “been zombies all along” reminds us that the zombies themselves are victims and that there is not that much difference between the behavior of the people of Centerville, pre-zombification or post-zombification. This motif, of course, is also prominent in the zombie films of Romero, perhaps most obviously in Dawn of the Dead, though the film that conveys this idea in a way that most resembles that in The Dead Don’t Die is probably Edgar Wright’s Shaun of the Dead (2004).[3]

In short, Jarmusch’s film does not really suggest that we are all destined to be killed by zombies. It does, however, suggest that we are all doomed to be done in by consumerism if we continue to buy into that system. That last qualifier is, however, an important one, because the film also suggests that we need not buy into the consumerist system, no matter how difficult it might be to avoid. Characters like Bobby Wiggins (because of his knowledge of horror films) or Hank Thompson (because of his access to deadly hardware) might appear to be good candidates to survive a literal zombie attack, but they both participate fully in the consumer capitalist system and therefore are fated to fall victim to the consumerist zombie apocalypse of this film. There are, however, characters in the film who do survive the zombie onslaught, and they also tend to be characters who opt out of the consumerist system.

The most obvious of these survivors is Hermit Bob, who has clearly been a non-participant in consumer capitalism for some time, having chosen to remove himself from the mainstream and move into the woods. He is thus able to stand apart from the fray and to comment upon the events of the film from a distance. In that sense, his function in the film is clear. The other survivor, Zelda Winston, does not have a role that is quite so obvious. In fact, at first glance, she might appear to be an entirely superfluous character, added in just to provide an extra note of quirkiness, without making any real contribution to the plot of the film. Zelda’s final escape might seem to support this view of her role, given that it seems to come totally out of nowhere. As she cuts a swathe through the zombie horde with her trusty katana, Zelda is suddenly saved when a large flying saucer suddenly appears and beams her up. It’s a moment so unexpected that even Ronnie is surprised, because it wasn’t in the script that he read. “Well that was unexpected,” he says, after Zelda ascends to the saucer, possibly in order to return to her home planet. Cliff shakes his head: “I knew there was something unusual about her.”

Zelda beams up.

One could see this as another self-referential moment, as a reminder that this is just a fictional movie and that the postmodern auteur Jarmusch is free to do whatever he wants.[4] But this extraterrestrial extraction can also be taken as a symbol of the way in which Zelda is an outsider to the consumer capitalist system. Granted, she is a small business owner, as are Bobby and Hank. But it is also clear that she operates her undertaking business in a mode that is devoted, not to making profit, but to achieving aesthetically pleasing results in her preparation of corpses for their funerals. Thus, when two such corpses reanimate in her preparation room, causing her to have to lop off their heads with her samurai sword, she sadly notes, “That’s a shame. I had them looking so bonny.” She’s very good with that sword, partly due to regular practice, but that practice is not really a preparation for combat so much as an aesthetic and spiritual (she practices in front of a golden Buddha) exercise.

In short, one could see Zelda as this film’s artist figure, just as the films of Jarmusch routinely feature such figures, as in the case of Adam Driver’s bus driver/poet in Paterson or Tom Hiddleston’s vampire/composer in Only Lovers Left Alive. Such figures (who might vaguely be seen as stand-ins for Jarmusch himself) can be taken as a statement about the importance of art in general. In particular, all of these artists are avowedly non-commercial. Adam, the vampire/composer of Only Lovers Left Alive is particularly and overtly horrified by the commercial music industry, while the title character of Paterson is content to work as a bus driver while writing his poems primarily for his own consumption. Adam, Paterson, and Zelda all create for the personal satisfaction of producing something that is well made, not something that can be marketed for profit. The artist figures in Jarmusch’s films—including Zelda in The Dead Don’t Die—thus serve as emblems of the notion that art and creativity can function as alternatives to the two-sided consumerist quest to produce profitable commodities on the one hand and to acquire more and more unnecessary material goods on the other. Perhaps more importantly, this representation of art in Jarmusch’s films functions as a more general suggestion that there are alternatives to consumerism and that our lives need not be so devoted to the quest to consume and the quest to profit from the consumption of others.

Whether either art or becoming a hermit in the woods provides an effective alternative to consumerism is open to question, of course, and Jarmusch seems to realize as much, given the ending of the film. Meanwhile, if nothing else, viewing Zelda as an extension of Jarmusch’s string of artist characters helps to make clear that making a zombie film such as The Dead Don’t Die was not really a departure for Jarmusch. Indeed, The Dead Don’t Die is a direct extension of the concerns with environmental decay and with the negative impact of consumerism that had already become central to Jarmusch’s work for some time. It also produces the kind of offbeat atmosphere for which Jarmusch’s films have become so well known and widely admired. Thus, though the film was not especially well-received on its initial release, there are reasons to believe that it might ultimately become a cult favorite for Jarmusch fans.

WORKS CITED

Abbott, Stacey. Undead Apocalypse: Vampires and Zombies in the Twenty-first Century. Edinburgh University Press, 2016.

McNally, David. Monsters of the Market: Zombies, Vampires and Global Capitalism. Haymarket Books, 2012.

Rosen, Elizabeth K. Apocalyptic Transformation: Apocalypse and the Postmodern Imagination. Lexington Books, 2008.

Seitz, Matt Zoller. “The Dead Don’t Die. Roger Ebert.com (June 14, 2019). https://www.rogerebert.com/reviews/the-dead-dont-die-2019. Accessed April 1, 2020.

NOTES

[1] Many recent postmodern narratives have taken an apocalyptic tone. See Elizabeth K. Rosen for a useful study of such narratives, if even if does not emphasize the role of zombie narratives in this phenomenon. For Rosen, one of the key aspects of postmodern apocalyptic narratives is that they are typically divorced from the Biblical roots of apocalyptic thought, enabling greater irony, or even the prevention of the apocalypse.

[2] In one of the film’s many inside jokes, we will eventually learn that Ronnie is the proud owner of a Star Wars key chain.

[3] It might be noted that even Only Lovers Left Alive makes this point. There, the vampire Adam habitually refers to ordinary humans as “zombies,” to express his disgust with their mindless abuse of the environment while trying to consume everything in sight.

[4] The moment is certainly not without precedent; it resembles the moment near the end of the Coen Brothers’ The Man Who Wasn’t There (2001) when a UFO suddenly appears to protagonist Ed Crane (Billy Bob Thonrton), or even the surprising moment in Woody Allen’s Stardust Memories (1980) when that film’s protagonist has a comic encounter with aliens from a UFO, though neither of these films is directly about UFOs.