I suspect that I would find The Dead Don’t Die much cooler if I’d seen it 20 years ago. Alas, this century has spoiled us for choice when it comes to comedies about zombies, and Jim Jarmusch is late to the party. I would rank his movie ahead of Dead Snow but behind Shaun of the Dead, Zombieland, and Anna and the Apocalypse. That’s still good enough for some chuckles here and there, it turns out.
The film begins in a near-future world where fracking at the Earth’s poles has thrown the planet off its axis, resulting in abnormally long days and nights, electronic devices refusing to work, and the dead rising from their graves to eat people. The characters take it with a typically Jarmuschian sangfroid. Like a surprising number of other citizens, Ofc. Ronnie Peterson (Adam Driver) immediately assumes zombies when devoured bodies start turning up, and he aims to survive the long night with the help of police firearms and his fellow officer (Chloë Sevigny) and their police chief (Bill Murray), though Ronnie repeatedly warns, “This is all gonna end badly.”
The fictional town where this is set is ominously named Centerville, and there’s one MAGA hat-wearing farmer significantly named Frank Miller (Steve Buscemi), whom the other characters are all content to let die. It isn’t the lack of subtlety that dooms this movie as a political allegory but rather all the loose ends — the subplot with the three teens in juvie (Taliyah Whitaker, Maya Delmont, and Jahi Winston) is a total waste, and the one with three kids from the city (Selena Gomez, Austin Butler, and Luke Sabbat) isn’t much better. As an environmental allegory, the film does work better. Still, I’ve never been that big a fan of Jarmusch and his too-cool vibe. Even the films of his that I like leave me emotionally unfulfilled in some respects, and Wes Anderson and Aki Kaurismäki wield his lack of affect with greater impact.
Jarmusch’s comic irony works fairly regularly, though, such as when Ronnie listens to Sturgill Simpson’s title song and informs his boss that it’s the movie’s theme song. (If you’re a Sturgill fan, he gets turned into a zombie in this movie.) The police chief mocks Ronnie for his zombie theories and promptly falls into a newly emptied grave. Tilda Swinton turns up as a weird Scottish funeral director who flashes some mean moves with a samurai sword. For visual jokes, there’s nothing better than the sight of Driver grimly rolling up to a murder scene in a bright red SmartCar. The Dead Don’t Die doesn’t break ground the way its zombies do, but the laughs it raises make it pleasant enough.
Starring Adam Driver and Bill Murray. Written and directed by Jim Jarmusch. Rated R.