THE DEAD DON’T DIE **** USA / Sweden 2019 Dir: Jim Jarmusch. 104 mins
Having turned his distinctive voice to vampirism with ONLY LOVERS LEFT ALIVE, writer-director Jarmusch now essays the equally well-trodden realm of the zombie movie – and gives the sub-genre a much-needed shot in the arm.
Jarmusch offers a vision of small-town USA in 2019, a place where farmer Steve Buscemi wears a “Keep America White Again” baseball cap, Tom Waits’ mad hermit suggests the end is nigh and Bill Murray’s police chief has a wonderful deadpan double act with Deputy Adam Driver, whose catchphrase is “this isn’t going to end well”. Radio broadcasts, in the tradition of the Romero movie that started it all, convey a world on the brink of ecological collapse and, more specifically, the Earth shifting off its axis courtesy of polar fracking. In a familiar Trumpian retort, the fracking company remind everyone how many new jobs have been created.
Meanwhile, the dead rise. Jarmusch’s parody of contemporary America isn’t subtle but affords lots of laughs via an all-star cast – from Selena Gomez as part of an amusingly ill-fated trio of hipsters to a very funny Tilda Swinton as a “strange new foreign woman” who has taken over the funeral home. The filmmaker gets to frequently indulge his love for Romero’s oeuvre, with fanboy in-jokes (a 1968 Pontiac, a comic book guy with NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD memorabilia) and the continuation of DAWN OF THE DEAD’s positioning of zombies as revived consumers “just hungry for more stuff”.
Jarmusch fans will enjoy the typical ensemble of nonplussed characters facing a zombie apocalypse and the small town gags (a crime scene’s “crowd control” consists of the cops telling three people to move it along), while the set up yields some neat riffs on zombie lore alongside a climactic meta-turn that involves Murray calling Jarmusch a dick on screen. The flippant tone is balanced by moments of real atmosphere – note the mist-enshrouded graveyard uprising – and a surprisingly haunting, even oddly poignant ending. The biggest laughs, however, come from the visualisation of the zombies as “remnants of the materialist people” : kid zombies stagger around growling “popsicles”; young adults lurch about clutching phones in their dead hands and, best of all, Carol Kane pootles around as a mature female zombie on an eternal quest for Chardonnay.
Review by Steven West