Zombies, they seem to be everywhere in popular culture. Zombie films have been around since the early days of cinema with films like White Zombie and Plan 9 From Outer Space. But it was the release of George A. Romero’s Night of the Living Dead that would define popular culture’s idea of what a zombie is. Prior to Romero, zombies were a product of voodoo or of science gone wrong, but in almost all cases, they were puppets doing the bidding of another. Romero saw zombies as mindless, uncontrollable, flesh-eating ghouls and that is the vision that stuck because the idea of the dead returning to life in hordes to stalk the living resonates with audiences in a way that no other concept has.
Many filmmakers, both indie and mainstream, have seen the potential in the popularity of the zombie genre and so there has been no shortage of films. 2019 has seen at least 10 zombie feature films released either straight to video or, in some cases, theatrically. Perhaps the most interesting of the 2019 horde is art house filmmaker Jim Jarmusch’s horror/comedy The Dead Don’t Die.
The Dead Don’t Die is set in the small town of Centerville. Local police chief Cliff Robertson (Bill Murray) and officer Ronnie Peterson (Adam Driver) are investigating the disappearance of farmer Miller’s (Steve Buscemi) chickens. Miller believes Hermit Bob (Tom Waits) stole them. However, the hermit doesn’t appear to have done so as he’s been living in the woods off nature for years. The pair return to town noting that it’s after 8 pm and still broad daylight out, which is strange. Ronnie also notices his watch isn’t working as they drive and discuss the strange things that have gone on in the town of late.
At the local diner, Miller talks with hardware store owner Hank (Danny Glover) about all the strangeness. They also hear a troubling radio report about the possible effects of polar fracking.
In another part of town at the juvenile detention center, teen inmates Geronimo (Jahl Winston) and his friends Stella (Maya Delmont) and Olivia (Taliyah Whitaker), hear the same report on the news. Geronimo tells the girls that the polar fracking is altering the Earth’s rotation and that the effects may be devastating.
At the police station officer Mindy Morrison (Chloe Sevigny) talks about all the strange goings on in the town with Cliff and Ronnie. They also discuss Zelda (Tilda Swinton) the quirky new owner of the nearby funeral home.
That night two corpses rise from their grave and head to the diner. They break in and kill the staff working there. The zombies are eating the flesh of their victims, but then stop when they notice there is coffee. They proceed to drink all the coffee they can find, breaking most of the pots and mugs in the process.
The next day the police chief, Ronnie and Mindy investigate the grizzly scene with Ronnie proclaiming that it’s definitely zombies and that this won’t end well.
As more and more animals begin fleeing and strange things continue to happen. the Chief gives in to Ronnie’s story and they investigate the local cemetery where they find that it does appear bodies have risen from the grave. Zelda, the mortician, is working on two bodies when they both sit up. She takes this with an amazing amount of calm and proceeds to lob their heads off with a samurai sword. (Did I mention she seems to always be wearing a samurai sword?)
Geronimo, Stella and Olivia manage to find a safe place to hide as zombies begin killing the other people in the juvenile detention center. Hermit Bob, who’s been observing the strange goings on in the town proclaims it’s zombies and even farmer Miller is soon besieged by the undead.
Will the town of Centerville and its unusual residents survive? Well, according to Ronnie, things won’t end well, but hey it’s not like he’s read the script to the movie, right?
The Dead Don’t Die is a brilliantly dry, dark comedy from art house director Jim Jarmusch. It blends in a satirical look at modern life with a witty self-awareness to create something rare in our modern, zombie film saturated, world of cinema-- an original film. While playing on many of the tropes in zombie culture, it does so with tongue-in-cheek and a sly wink to the audience. There are nods to the classic films throughout, including a group of millennials (lead by Selena Gomez) driving through town in a 1967 Pontiac LeMans, the type of car used by Johnny and Barbara in Night of the Living Dead.
Perhaps the biggest problem that The Dead Don’t Die is that it may be a little too self-aware. The film’s quirky style and occasional breaking of the 4th wall make it unique, but also divisive. Many horror fans do not like the film because it doesn’t take itself seriously as a horror film, but it also maintains a steady dry humor throughout that not everyone appreciates. Interestingly at this point, the movie review site Rotten Tomatoes gives the film a 54% freshness score. That means that almost exactly half of the reviewers who’ve posted about it are positive and half are negative. While I truly enjoyed the films originality, wit and dark humor, it is easy to see why that is.