In The Dead Don’t Die, Jim Jarmusch’s signature style of filmmaking is seamlessly woven into the typical setup of the zombie horror film sub-genre. A small, fictitious town in rural America experiences strange goings-on that lead to the reanimation of its deceased citizens and a fight to escape for the remaining survivors. Jarmusch cleverly subverts generic expectations with his penchant for wry humour, deadpan delivery, celebrity cameos and meta-textual references.
The most interesting example of these is a series of constant, self-referential lines of dialogue exchanged between Chief Cliff Robertson (Bill Murray) and Officer Ronnie Peterson (Adam Driver). Roaming the tiny town’s tranquil streets, Ronnie turns on the car radio, which plays Sturgill Simpson’s country song that shares its name with the film’s title. A little bewildered, Cliff asks Ronnie what the music is and why does it sound “so darn familiar?” Ronnie’s straight-faced reply is that it’s the film’s theme song, and they continue their journey in silence. At first, this interaction may be read as a self-aware, quirky nod to an audience familiar with a Jarmusch feature. However, it’s a much more blatant example of when the film reveals itself to be a farce when corroborated with other extreme instances.
At one point, a frustrated Cliff demands to know why the “oddly controlled” Ronnie repeatedly moans: “this is going to end badly”. Much to Cliff’s dismay, Ronnie explains that Jim (Jarmusch) let him read the whole script. Without breaking character, Cliff exclaims how Jim is a dick for only letting him read their scenes “even after everything he’s done for that guy, and there’s a lot that you don’t even know about.” It’s a smart, if silly, moment of irony that not only foreshadows the finale, but also blurs the boundaries between celebrity and performance, reality and fiction. It holds a magnifying glass to the process of filmmaking that is so jarring during the final act of a horror film. This humorous interplay takes the audience out of the drama, only to throw them back into it. When the heroes make their last stand, standing back to back with their shotguns and machetes outflanked by waves of the undead, Ronnie turns to Cliff and mumbles “I told you this was going to end badly”. Shortly after, they both meet an untimely demise.
Jarmusch’s reversion of the zombie film is by no means original. It mocks the same tropes of the genre that are poked fun at by similar horror comedies Zombieland and Shaun of the Dead. The heavy-handed, ironic plot twists might deter some viewers from finding any alluring subtext, but it is certainly present in The Dead Don’t Die.
In Jarmusch’s film, life is symbolised by a cycle of consumption and decay; those of us that choose to resist such habits are the ones that will survive. The last man standing, Hermit Bob (Tom Waits), is a hobo who shares a kindred bond with the forest he lives in. He talks to the trees, nurtures the plants, and lives off the land. His partnership with nature is symbiotic, and he takes every opportunity to show his appreciation for all its hard work. It’s a gentle reminder that the Earth is a living organism: it needs to be understood as a fellow man and when we neglect it, it could turn on us like a wild animal. In this sense, Jarmusch’s environmentalist tendencies are uniquely adapted to become a catalyst for the narrative, itself. Never one to take himself too seriously, though, Jarmusch refuses to explain any scientific reasoning behind the return of the Living Dead and “polar fracking”. Instead, he foregrounds the ludicrously Hollywood-ised brand of plot that he’s selling: where animals go insane, day becomes night, and the Earth spins off is axis. It’s another turn that is so upfront with the audience that it really does suggest that he knows what he’s doing.
While his damning critique of popular culture and capitalist idealism is arguably a little too transparent, Jarmusch takes aim with a feather-light finger on the trigger. The Dead Don’t Die is far removed from the tone he had set as one of the founding fathers of New York’s underground cinema of the 80s, but the spirit of the New Wave is alive and kicking in this tongue-in-cheek cult feature.