The Dead Don't Die: who makes the zombies?

Dead Don't Die Poster
Dead Don't Die Poster

A review of Jim Jarmusch's anti-zombie film. This review contains many spoilers so you may want to see the movie before reading this.

Submitted by Comrade Motopu on June 17, 2019

We saw Jim Jarmusch's anti-zombie movie "The Dead Don't Die" today and liked it. The film lives up to the best of the Romero Dead films in that it uses the genre for social critique. But it also acknowledges the genre itself is dead.

There's seemingly no way to generate new ideas with such a film, so Jarmusch sabotages his own movie. The location is a small generic town and the diner, sundries, jail, police headquarters, gas station, motel, are introduced in a cursory fashion. In a sequence of quick shots, Bill Murray and Adam Driver drive past them in their police cruiser. The town characters are deadpan and flat to match the setting and the way Jarmusch, aware he's projecting onto a canvass, uses the two-dimensionality to accentuate predictability and normalcy. In that sense it is your typical horror movie. The apocalyptic scenarios the characters will be put through are well worn, but in Jarmusch’s film, they either sense this, or are written to indicate it's all nothing new. The lack of newness and creativity are one part of the broader theme of energy resources winding down. This is a small town, but the people are not merely parochial. They’re as plugged into pop cultural references as any city slicker. So they are not that surprised by a Zombie outbreak. They've seen the countless zombie films the one they are now in is ripping off.

When the city slicker hipsters from Cleveland arrive, they're driving the car from the original Night of the Living Dead opening graveyard scene, a vintage Pontiac. The vehicle that gets them into this mess is itself recycled, rehashed from a previous story. They’re running out of gas.

Three basic tiers of civilization are represented here: City, hinterland, and wilderness. The visitors are city folk, then there is the small town, and one level further detached from civilization is Tom Waits as a hermit, actually reprising his role as the drunk sage from “Down By Law,” of "It's a sad and beautiful world" fame. As an outside commentator and observer to the apocalypse, he’s still powerless to warn anyone. Hermit Bob knows how to survive in the woods, how to hunt and prepare game, perhaps indicating there could be survivors after civilization crumbles, and that some people are already living the post-apocalypse.

The main conflict driving the film is energy-extraction vs. sustainability. "Polar Fracking" has apparently tilted the world off it's access, and so of course the dead come back to life as a result [works for me]. The people too are running low on energy. The film highlights coffee and energy drink consumption, and the hipsters are almost out of gasoline, in the same breath as it explains the polar fracking crisis. Hermit Bob also knows how to read. He finds an old copy of _Moby Dick_ ,. It’s a nod to another story from the nineteenth century about the consequences of commodification leading to a mad drive for profits via ruthless extraction of an energy source, whale oil.

Steve Buscemi's character is a MAGA loser, who, despite probably not being that racist in his heart, has internalized an entire routine based on FOX News anti-immigrant and racist hysteria. His every move is offensive, and whatever decency you can occasionally see peering out from behind his shrill front, is drowned in the ruling class ideology he, like the rest of us, swims in. The radio reports continue to feature "experts" who assure the listening audience that nothing is wrong, and there is no scientific evidence that these processes of extraction are damaging the environment, only an alarmist would make such claims. This dead ideology won’t die, and it’s going to drag down the world with it.

Not only do the characters know about zombies, but some of them have already read the script. They’re aware they're in a film and it's not a very good one. This, and the realization that they won't get any reliable or truthful analysis from the media (or their own director!) fuels their existential frustration, a sense of helplessness in the face of the script they're acting out, headed toward certain doom. It won’t end well.

There is a sense that the problems are beyond anyone's capacity to solve. The weird conspiracy theories that served as explanations are now simply reality (including flying saucers). The world has tilted and as we slide into the abyss there is nothing to grab onto to set it or ourselves right, because reality has become inaccessible, a victim of the profit motive. Maybe all that’s left is a good death?

The only glimmer of hope here are three kids, none of them white, and all of them in a Juvie facility, who can sense things aren't set up right. Will they make it to a place where they can live another day and bring about some kind of meaningful change, or are they just inheriting the dead world created for them?

The film is filled with horror, pop cultural, and indie film references. If you are not aware that this is a self-detourning film you might just think it's "boring." I knew I was going to like it when one horror website movie reviewer wrote that the film was boring, like "Only Lovers Left Alive."