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The best way to spot a Jim Jarmusch movie is to throw a dart, blindfold, at a wall of ideas. He’s done existential westerns (Dead Man), anthologies about taxi drivers (Night on Earth), a documentary about The Stooges (Gimme Danger) and the best hip-hop/samurai/film noir movie ever made (Ghost Dog: Way of the Samurai). Now, he’s turned his attention to horror comedy and the result is so inherently Jarmuschian it basically breaks the meter and embeds the needle in the wall of the lab. Where, I can only assume, Bill Murray stares at it for a moment, goes…’Huh’ and then continues about his day.
The Dead Don’t Die is set in Centerville, a minuscule American town. With a population of under a thousand, police officers Cliff Robertson (Bill Murray), Ronnie Peterson (Adam Driver) and Mindy Morrison (Chloë Sevigny) don’t have much to do. Until Farmer Miller (Steve Buscemi) accuses Hermit Bob (Tom Waits) of stealing a chicken and everyone begins to notice how strange the day/night cycle has become. Polar fracking may have knocked the Earth off its axis. It may also have woken the dead. Either way, Centerville has some problems and three police officers uniquely ill equipped to deal with any of them.
Oh there’s also Bobby the shy local gas station owner and geek (Caleb Landry Jones), his friend and UUPS (yes) delivery driver Dean (RZA), mysterious new town coroner Zelda Winston (Tilda Swinton), hardware store owner Hank Thompson (Danny Glover) and Mallory O’Brien (Carol Kane), recently deceased town drunk. Along with Zoe (Selena Gomez), a hipster on her way through town with Zack (Luka Sabbat) and Jack (Austin Butler) these people orbit one another in a constantly decreasing circle of grumpy local obligation, mutual affection and awareness of what sort of movie they’re in.
It is so, so odd. It honestly may be the oddest thing Jarmusch has ever done and he’s not exactly Captain Linear Narratives Are My Jam on his very best day. Murray, Sevigny and Driver are endlessly, vastly deadpan in a manner that’s often hilarious, and at times, very touching. An early scene, where Cliff takes a shift alone with Mallory’s corpse hints at so much backstory and pain that it feels like it’s wandered in from a different movie. A later scene, involving Swinton’s katana wielding Scottish coroner flat out states she has wandered in from a very different kind of movie. The film plays with expectation and tone endlessly. When Bobby sees Zoe for the first time, there are briefly sparkles around her head. On several occasions the music reacts to the characters. The cops’ deadpan approach lasts as long as it takes a character to be swept up in emotion, which often happens. Scenes other movies would show us, Jarmusch shows us the aftermath of. The world is off it’s axis, the falcon cannot hear the falconer and the chaos is embodied here not only in the walking dead but in what we see and how we see it.
Oh and at least one character has read the script. All of it.
It would be so easy for this to be cute and it almost is. It would be even easier for this to be sniffy, a hipster auteur lowering himself to genre cinema long enough to tell us how much it sucks before swanning off again. Honestly, there’s a pretty strong case for that in spots, especially the ending. Trust me, you’re going to be reading think pieces about this as a sweeping satire of zombie movies in general and the creative death of horror cinema in particular and Oh God I’ve gone cross eyed, what day is it again?
Those reads are plausible. I don’t think they’re accurate. For me, this is far more Jarmusch having a conversation with a genre he often doesn’t bother with and being interested by what he finds. There’s a sense of him picking up different toys and trying them out to see what works, especially in the way the movie has three sets of characters who could plausibly be called protagonists. Just as fun is the way Jarmusch parodies the established rules of these movies while also evolving them. Zombies fixate on the last thing they remember wanting, which is why you have the undead shuffling around Centerville mumbling ‘Siri…Siri’ and ‘WiFi…WiFi…’. This is also why Iggy Pop will live forever on a thousand more student walls in his role as Coffee Zombie. Carry on, Sir Igsworth, carry on in the name of so many of us.
But for all this familiarity, Jarmusch ends up playing this tune in a very different key and often on slide guitar. The movie does new things, many of them profoundly strange, with the genre. You could even argue the genuine horror here comes from the fact that characters are aware of what’s happening, of their artificial environment and their place within it and are still, in the end, unable to break out. Or to put it another way, it’s not that they’re coming to get you, Barbara, its that they’ve written the script and, well, it ends badly.
The Dead Don’t Die is po-faced, willfully obtuse, often very funny and has the single best recurring soundtrack gag I have ever heard in my life. Along with Midsommar, it establishes a new high watermark for deeply odd horror and I’m gleeful to see where this sub-genre of a sub-genre goes next.
The Dead Don’t Die is on general release now and I suspect everyone involved with it is as pleasantly surprised about that as I am.